Gangs, cops and issues of trust

Justified or not, the shooting of a teen gang member by police reminds some why a citizen review board for police is needed

Friends watch over a memorial to slain 16-year-old Jairo Rodriguez, who was shot by a Reno police officer June 4.

Friends watch over a memorial to slain 16-year-old Jairo Rodriguez, who was shot by a Reno police officer June 4.

Photo by David Robert

An anti-gang peace march, sponsored by Unlimited Intervention, will be held June 23. For details, call 323-5521.

A barking dog woke her up in the middle of the night Sunday. That surprised Locust Street resident Dawn Polinelli, who said she hadn’t slept so well in a year.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “Where’s the gunfire, the helicopters, the police sirens? I thought, ‘Pinch me. I must be dreaming.’ “

Polinelli was thrilled that the Reno Police Department set up shop near her lifelong home last week after an outbreak of drive-by shootings led to the death of 16-year-old Jairo Rodriguez at the hands of Officer Alan Roney of RPD’s gang unit.

Not all neighbors, though, were ecstatic with the RPD’s presence in the area.

“The Latinos are the ones dying here,” said Roberto Nerey, director of Unlimited Intervention, a gang alternative program in Reno. “I understand that the police have a hard job. But we have a hard job, too. No one is above the law. And the community’s sending out the message that this shooting is OK.”

On the evening of June 4, police officers say they warned area youths to stay inside because a rival gang was planning a drive-by shooting. When a dark car drove into the neighborhood, police say that Rodriguez threw a baseball bat at the car and then fired into the vehicle with a .380 semi-automatic handgun.

Officer Roney drove up in an unmarked car. He was wearing a green jacket over his uniform. Roney shouted, in English, that he was a police officer. As the armed 16-year-old ran toward the officer, Roney ordered Rodriguez to drop the gun.

Roney didn’t know that Rodriguez couldn’t speak English. Rodriguez didn’t drop the gun. Roney fired five shots. Bullets struck Rodriguez in the legs, thighs and torso. The last bullets hit his side and shoulder.

A 15-year-old told a Reno Gazette-Journal reporter that Rodriguez fell to the ground after the first shot was fired. The officer fired at the boy again after he was on the ground, the witness said. Police discounted the report. An RPD news release Wednesday said that the boy had later told detectives that he did not see or hear the officer shoot Rodriguez.

But other witnesses have complained to the ACLU and to Nerey that police have threatened them.

“In this case, there are a lot of gaps,” Nerey said. “The only way we’ll know the truth is by doing an objective investigation. Someone has to ask some tough questions. A kid got shot—not once, not twice, but five times!”

The Washoe County Coroner won’t say what the autopsy showed about the bullets’ angles of entry or exit wounds until all internal police investigations into the matter are complete.

"[Rodriguez] died from multiple gunshot wounds,” said coroner Vernon McCarty. “As long as police are interviewing witnesses, that’s all we can say. We don’t want them to read it in the newspapers.”

The ACLU has received several calls from individuals complaining about a pattern of poor police behavior in the neighborhood, said Kendall Stagg, Northern Nevada coordinator of the ACLU. Some residents have said they felt “interrogated, harassed and intimidated” by police. One teen reported that officers came to his home at 3 a.m. a few days before the shooting, waking him up to take him down to the station for questioning.

“If the police are being accused of harassing and intimidating, that doesn’t build trust,” Stagg said.

The Reno City Council decided earlier this year to set up an ad hoc panel to look at how police handle complaints and whether a civilian review board to oversee such investigations could be useful here. About 20 people applied for 11 positions on the panel. Council members will interview the applicants at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

But the makeup of the panel has raised the ire of some Renoites. Council members say objectivity is key, and the panel shouldn’t be weighted in favor of any special interest.

Yet five of the 11 panel positions are reserved for members from law enforcement. And applicants for the other six positions are being carefully screened. Councilman Dave Aiazzi said that he wants to know about the kinds of committees and clubs of which applicants are already members.

“I wouldn’t want someone like him—Gary Peck [head of the ACLU in Nevada]—on the panel, because [the ACLU] already wants a review board,” Aiazzi said, adding that he wouldn’t personally object to another member of the ACLU being on the panel. “I don’t want to exclude anyone. I don’t judge individuals by the company they keep.”

Police are insisting on background checks for potential panel members, because these individuals will be able to access records and information not available to the general public.

It’s difficult, Aiazzi said, to balance the interests of the police department in the safety of its officers with the public’s right to know—or want to know. But, if successful, Aiazzi said the result would be like Occam’s Razor, a philosophical uniting of disparate ideas so that a narrow slice of common ground emerges.

“We’re balancing two different interests here, but maybe on that razor’s edge they have the same interest,” Aiazzi said.

As far as the Rodriguez shooting goes, Aiazzi isn’t sure civilian oversight would make much difference to the public’s trust in the police.

“Someone points a gun at a cop, [he] gets shot,” he said. “That’s the consequence of pointing a gun at a cop.”

The police say they’re hearing only positive feedback on how the gang problem is being handled in the Locust Street area.

“There’s no community outrage against the police,” said Deputy Chief Jim Weston. “We sense just the opposite. People say, ‘It’s about time you did something about the gangs.’ “

Many even think the RPD should be much more aggressive, Weston said.

“Some have suggested lining ’em all up and giving ’em guns, then letting them shoot it out,” Weston said. “Or just shipping all gang members to the Black Rock Desert.”

Though these “solutions” are far-fetched, Weston said that they show the degree to which people are frustrated and upset.

And about that civilian review board?

“It’s the same handful of people that have been talking about [civilian oversight] for the past 20 years,” Weston said.

Nerey said that he doesn’t want to point fingers. He just wants justice and peace in the community like everyone else. But city officials, he said, aren’t making it easy.

“It’s obvious that the city doesn’t support [a civilian review board for police],” he said. “They have earned no respect from the Latino community. They don’t care about what we think, let alone what we feel. Why has something so important been so neglected for so long?”

Anti-gang efforts need to be handled by agencies that understand the issues facing those who become members of gangs, Nerey added.

“We are lacking services. We don’t meet the basic needs," he said. "I’m afraid that if [gang membership] spreads too far out, and we don’t decide to get involved until it’s too late, then the community will get the opportunity to see a true crisis."