Let the sunshine in

Last week, the RN&R ran the first piece in a multi-part series about police use of deadly force. In the first piece of our investigations, two things became clear: There is a need for outside oversight in cases of police use of deadly force; and some government agencies treat the public’s legal right to know as optional.

In some counties in Nevada, there are citizen oversight boards to hear the evidence in cases of police use of deadly force—some through hearings facilitated by the district attorney’s office. In many states, the hearings are held at the state level, putting at least one bureaucratic step between those investigating and those being investigated.

But in Washoe County, those hearings, which are said to be held by the Officer Involved Shooting Board, are the modern equivalent of Star Chambers—secret hearings that produce no public records and allow no public oversight.

Indeed, the only window into these proceedings comes through the district attorney’s findings of legal justification for use of deadly force. Since 2000, the district attorney’s office has found legal justification for every use of deadly force that resulted in fatalities, even in at least one case—Charles Bishop on Oct. 28, 2009—involving a “fatality” in which nobody was killed. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a clearer example to show the need for citizen oversight than a finding of legal justification for a fatality based on an investigative report that wasn’t read.

That raises the question of, why should these hearings be secret? There’s nothing to indicate that any police use of deadly force in Washoe County in the last 14 years was questionable under the law. The opacity ignites suspicion of police where none should exist.

But that policy of secrecy seems a pattern among those who the law requires to be open in their affairs.

Nevada’s public records law is quite specific. If a record is produced by government, and it’s not exempted by law, then it’s a public document, available to the public during office hours and at a reasonable fee.

And yet the very agencies who are mandated to prosecute violations of laws refuse to follow the laws regarding public records. If employees find the records request inconvenient, they simply ignore it, knowing that their superiors won’t discipline them or enforce the law. Arbitrary removal of information, fees that don’t conform to the law, and months-long delays for handing over records are all methods routinely used to prevent journalists and the public from getting at information. Again, the question becomes, why would they hide, when a close review of investigations shows detailed, careful and modern pursuits of justice?

In short, some government agencies appear to believe the law exists for others. They’re above it. Heads of those agencies appear to believe they should be able to operate in the shadows like the people they pursue. These are policies that undermine the very foundations that our democracy is built upon.

Citizens of Washoe County deserve open government. They deserve a seat in use of deadly force hearings, and they deserve efficient and public management of their records. They are getting none of these.