The city shouldn’t fund private cops

The Downtown Reno Partnership appears to do a few things right. They’ve cultivated partnerships with other nonprofit organizations in downtown Reno, like Northern Nevada HOPES and the Eddy House, to help facilitate mental health services for people—homeless or otherwise—in need. The DRP employees—“ambassadors”—receive training from the Reno Police Department and local mental health professionals.

Still, they’re not actually cops (or mental health professionals). And, sure, homeless folks don’t usually like to talk to actual law enforcement officers. So, not being actual cops might help the “ambassadors” to better cultivate relationships among the city’s homeless and low-income populations, but, according to the City of Reno’s own website, the “ambassadors” are charged to “make the core of the city cleaner, safer and friendlier.”

That sounds a lot like the traditional job of a police officer.

But, once again, these “ambassadors” are not police officers. In fact, they’re not even city employees.

The Downtown Reno Partnership is a nonprofit organization, and, like all nonprofits, it’s governed by a board of directors, which, in this case, does include a City Councilmember and a County Commissioner, as well as representatives from some of the DRP’s nonprofit partners, but it mostly consists of local business people, including representatives from the casinos and Jacobs Entertainment, the company that drew a lot of local criticism for buying and razing vintage motels and other buildings west of downtown.

And even though the DRP is a private organization, it is funded through assessments levied at local businesses and collected by the City of Reno. Those assessments are taxes in all but name. And last week, the Reno City Council approved a significant increase on those assessments, despite protests from some smaller downtown business owners.

Small business owners are essentially paying taxes given to a nonprofit overseen by some of downtown’s most powerful businesses.

And, sure, the “ambassadors” seem harmless enough, glorified hall monitors wearing goofy uniforms and riding around on Segways, giving directions to tourists. But there are still expectations—from city officials and the private sector—that these “ambassadors” will engage in some light police work—like asking homeless people to move off the sidewalks in front of the favored businesses.

So it’s hard to shake the impression that the Reno City Council is levying a local business tax to fund a private police force that answers primarily to the most powerful businesses in downtown. That’s scary.