Sisolak ‘damn proud’ of Legislature, will sign state public option bill, explains death penalty decision

Gov. Steve Sisolak said on Tuesday that he is “damn proud of what this Legislature did” and thinks it was “a very productive session,” highlighting priority policies that he will likely run on during the 2022 midterm election.

The first-term Democrat rattled off a list of accomplishments during the 120-day session that ended Monday, including distributing $100 million in grants to small businesses, earmarking federal funds to modernize the unemployment system, passing a bill that guarantees many hospitality workers the “right to return” to their old jobs and passing measures that expand voting opportunities.

He also says he’s “110 percent” sure he will run for re-election in 2022, saying he thinks the state is on the upswing after a turbulent year responding to the pandemic.

“I think we have an opportunity to build a new Nevada in the future, and I want to be part of that,” he said.

Below are highlights from a wide-ranging interview Sisolak conducted with reporters from his Carson City office.

Gov. Steve Sisolak with Chief of Staff Michelle White and Senior Adviser Scott Gilles at a roundtable discussion with reporters about the 2021 session in Carson City on June 1, 2021. Photo by David Calvert.

State public option

Sisolak confirmed Tuesday that he will sign Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro’s SB420, legislation that will make Nevada one of the first states in the nation to adopt a state-managed public health insurance option.

The governor’s commitment to sign the bill dashes the hopes of opponents urging a veto after a contentious legislative journey for the bill, which requires insurers that bid to provide coverage to the state’s Medicaid population to also offer a public option plan resembling existing qualified health plans on the state health insurance exchange system. The bill also calls for an actuarial study and for the public options to become available starting in 2026.

“It's not something that you flip a switch and happens overnight,” Sisolak said. “But anytime there's an opportunity to get health care coverage available for more Nevadans is certainly something that I'm interested in.”

Special sessions

Sisolak said he has not scheduled a legislative special session focused on how the state should spend the coming $2.7 billion in federal American Rescue Plan dollars and hundreds of other federal COVID relief funding streams coming into the state. 

Nevada lawmakers ended the regular session without a clear plan on the coming federal windfall — though lawmakers approved legislation, SB461, earmarking $335 million of the federal dollars to the unemployment trust fund aimed at avoiding any automatic hikes in unemployment taxes paid by businesses.

The legislation also includes millions more in direct spending on specific public health, food insecurity and other programs, while also creating a “waterfall” of funding priorities for future use of the federal dollars.

Will that be enough to avoid a special session? Sisolak demurred, saying his office was still working through the U.S. Treasury guidance on how the federal dollars can be spent and for now was taking a “wait and see” approach. The governor added that a fall special session will be necessary to complete the state’s redistricting process, after delays in compiling and reporting U.S. Census data caused by the pandemic.

“When there's a session necessary, we'll call it,” he said.

Tax initiative petitions

Part of the deal to pass a bill imposing a new tax on the mining industry involved the Clark County Education Association teacher’s union withdrawing two proposed ballot measures that would raise sales and gaming taxes. Lawmakers amended a bill in the waning hours of the session to explicitly authorize such petitions to be withdrawn within 90 days of an election, even after they have qualified for the ballot.

“I'm gonna trust that any commitment that they made to me or to my staff, they're gonna follow through on,” Sisolak said.

CCEA Executive Director John Vellardita said after the bill’s first hearing but before a vote that “if we get a deal, we will keep our word.”

But Sisolak said he wasn’t sure exactly when that would happen or if it would be right at the allowable deadline for withdrawal.

“I would hope we don't have to wait ‘til 90 days right before,” Sisolak said. “Hopefully it will be sooner than that. I don't know how much sooner.”

Asked if he was worried that the strategy of filing an initiative petition to try to force certain actions from policymakers would become commonplace, the governor said he hoped not.

“I don't believe in legislating by initiative petition,” he said. “The public's input is certainly required, it's necessary and sought out. But that's why we elect people. I don't think that the initiative petition process is the most effective way to get results. And I hope that that's not what this causes.”

Death penalty

After what was arguably the highest profile bill to die in the legislative process — a measure advanced by the Assembly on party lines to abolish the death penalty — Sisolak said nobody has yet approached him asking for him to impose a moratorium on capital punishment.

He also said he doesn’t believe he has the individual power to grant clemency for people on death row who fall outside of a category he thinks the death penalty should exist for — the most egregious cases, such as mass shootings and terrorism.

Sisolak’s chief of staff, Michelle White, said the governor had wanted to meet with people on both sides of the issue, including families of victims and of people on death row, but those talks did not happen before the session.

“There were no conversations with our office leading up to this legislative session on the death penalty,” she said. “There was no outreach saying, 'we're going to do this and so we want to get some input on this.'”

Sisolak said he was uncomfortable making such a momentous decision in an environment where many legislative meetings were remote and public comment was taken in short increments over the phone. 

“It's different when you're sitting face to face with someone you see them, the family member,” he said. “And I'm not talking necessarily about the large groups, I'm talking about the family members who lost a loved one as a result of a mass shooting.”

He said there was “zero” consideration about being seen as soft on crime when Republican Joe Lombardo, the sheriff in Clark County, is planning to run for governor.

“When I make legislative decisions, they have nothing to do with my political opponents,” he said.

Opportunity Scholarships

The compromise by which the mining tax was approved involved funding authorization for a program many Democrats dislike — the tax credit-funded Opportunity Scholarship program that supports low-income children attending private schools. The bill brings funding back up to 2019 levels, reversing an arrangement that lets no new children enroll and effectively begins a phase-out of the program.

Asked if he thinks the program should be a permanent fixture in Nevada, Sisolak noted that one Legislature can’t bind a future Legislature.

“There were a lot of discussions leading up to that. It wasn't easy,” he said. “Good governance is all about compromise. I mean, it's not just getting your way all the time.”

Asked if he would include it in the recommended budget he will put forward if he is re-elected ahead of the 2023 session, he said he hasn’t thought about the budget for next session but will “definitely” be talking to his top staffers about what the budget will look like.

“This was an agreement that was made,” he said. “I'm going to follow through with my side of the agreement, all the terms that were made.”

Gov. Steve Sisolak speaks at a roundtable discussion with reporters about the 2021 session in Carson City on June 1, 2021. Photo by David Calvert.

Innovation Zones

Though the concept was downgraded to an interim study, Sisolak said he is still a believer in “Innovation Zones,” the proposed semi-autonomous corporate-backed governmental structure sought by Blockchains, Inc.

No bill was ever introduced, but draft language around the “Innovation Zone” concept drew opposition from state lawmakers in both parties, rural communities concerned about proposed water usage and even became the butt of jokes for late-night TV hosts.

Sisolak acknowledged that the bill was a “heavy lift” but said he was still a supporter of the concept mentioned during his January State of the State address, saying that it put no state money at risk and could help with economic development. He said building support for the bill was difficult with the Legislature largely closed to the public and in-person meetings.

“I think the concept was misunderstood because the detractors put it out there like it's a company town, and you're given control of the government. That's not at all what it was,” he said. “But in the midst of a 120-day session, when I was in the initial discussions on Innovation Zones, I wasn't contemplating having a pandemic.”

Raises for state workers

Some lawmakers spoke out against a plan to give raises up to 3 percent for state workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, and 1 percent to those without. It’s the first budget approved since state workers were authorized to unionize.

“I guess what I find disturbing is because this becomes a reward and an incentive to put everyone under a collective bargaining unit, because we don't pay them if they don't,” Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) said before voting against a bill implementing state employee pay. “And to me that seems to be a little inappropriate.”

Asked whether the arrangement is fair, Sisolak said it’s not collective bargaining if everybody gets the same thing.

“I've been involved with different parts of collective bargaining for a long time. That's what collective bargaining is,” he said. “Different units came forward with different proposals and different requests and made cases and they came to agreements. And I'm no one to stop that.” 

SNWA turf removal

While cautioning that he wanted to read the bill for any last-minute amendments, Sisolak indicated that he also will sign a proposal backed by the Southern Nevada Water Authority that would generally prohibit non-functional grass outside of single-family residences in Clark County starting in 2027. The bill would remove about 5,000 acres of unused grasses, which uses about 10 percent of Nevada’s 300,000 acre-foot water allocation from the Colorado River. 

Sisolak called the idea behind AB356 a “great policy,” saying that anyone who flies into Las Vegas can see the infamous “bathtub ring” on the shores of Lake Mead and see the need for water conservation in Southern Nevada.

“I think that it's incumbent upon us, for the next generation, to be more conscious of our conservation and natural resources, water being particularly important,” he said.

Mixed signals from governor, election considerations blamed for failure of death penalty repeal effort

After more than 20 years of trying to ban the state’s death penalty, and following former death penalty stronghold Virginia's repeal of capital punishment in mid-March, activists hoped that the 2021 legislative session would finally be the time for Nevada to end capital punishment. 

But in spite of the state's Democratic trifecta, those efforts culminated in one of the biggest heartbreaks of the session for criminal justice reform advocates when the bill was spiked by Gov. Steve Sisolak and legislative Democratic leaders earlier this month. 

Though no one has been executed in the state since 2006, the Clark County district attorney's office is now pushing for the execution of Zane Floyd, who was convicted of killing four people inside a Las Vegas grocery store two decades ago. Advocates said the move made passing a repeal even more urgent this session.

So why did repeal fail?

No single cause of death is named on the legislative coroner's report, but interviews with involved parties suggest a combination of factors — ranging from personal belief, mixed gubernatorial signals, potential election-related considerations and the fact that the two senators responsible for hearing the bill work for the Clark County district attorney — helped kill the measure and keep Nevada as one of 24 states with the death penalty.

The entire debate takes place against the backdrop of a state still closely divided in party registration, with some top senators — including Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) — winning election by a single percentage point. Republicans flipped several legislative seats in the 2020 election, and Gov. Steve Sisolak’s expected re-election challenger in 2022 is Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo — a candidate likely to highlight a message of law and order. 

Those political dynamics make public opinion a key consideration, but the data has been somewhat inconclusive. A 2017 poll commissioned by The Nevada Independent indicated that most Nevadans support the death penalty, but advocates have long questioned whether the solid tilt toward capital punishment had to do with the way the poll question was phrased.

Anti-death penalty activists commissioned a new survey released earlier this year that showed much closer results — and even a slight lean toward abolition — when questions were phrased differently.

Past legislative sessions have often seen a small group of progressive Democrats introduce capital punishment repeal bills, but the measures never advanced far, with leadership hesitant to push a politically dicey issue through the process in the face of a likely veto. In 2017, Gov. Brian Sandoval signaled opposition to a repeal bill, and after getting one committee hearing it was never brought up for a vote.

So, when Assembly members this session voted on party lines to abolish the death penalty, with Republicans opposed, activists celebrated the measure’s move out of committee to a floor vote, the furthest the concept had ever traveled in the Legislative Building. They said the bill was essential to doing away with an "eye for an eye" mentality and a practice they say does not help hurting families move on from violence, disproportionately affects people of color and is an expensive endeavor that could lead to killing innocent people.

Opponents, including Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson and individuals who have lost loved ones to violence, however, pushed back against the repeal, saying the death penalty is necessary as a prosecutorial tool and should be an option for individuals who committed atrocities such as the October 1 shooting. 

“There are differences between perpetrators and crimes,” Wolfson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in April. “I strongly believe that the death penalty should be reserved for the very rare and extreme circumstances. … The solution is to engage and refine the law, not abandon an option the voters support.”

During a hearing on the measure in late March, lawmakers also heard from Jennifer Otremba, who described the murder of her 15-year-old daughter Alyssa in 2011 near her Las Vegas home. Javier Righetti, who was 19 at the time of the killing, received a death sentence in 2017.

"He did not consider Alyssa’s life. Why should his life be considered?,” Otremba said. “I waited five and a half years for justice for my daughter, and if I have to continue to fight politicians for the rest of my life to ensure that justice is served, then I will do that."

The measure had faced an uncertain future in the Democrat-controlled Senate — which is helmed by Cannizzaro, a prosecuting attorney for the Clark County district attorney. Cannizzaro was repeatedly noncommittal when asked whether she would allow the bill to get a hearing if it passed the Assembly, including in a Nevada Independent forum ahead of the session in January, and maintained that noncommittal stance for months.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas), a fellow prosecutor in the district attorney’s office and the key gatekeeper on the decision to give the bill a hearing, had appeared willing to give the bill a chance. Prior to the session, she had indicated her support for efforts to abolish the death penalty, and said just two weeks before the bill died that she would be willing to hear it if an amendment was brought forward addressing the concerns expressed by Sisolak.

During a brief interview with The Nevada Independent on Thursday, Scheible said she would have considered an amendment with a broad base of support, but that nothing came to fruition. 

Schedules are constantly moving, she said, adding that she tries to make sure there is always time to hear a bill, but "it takes a lot of people in this government to make such a sweeping change and so without full consensus, we weren't able to."

Scott Coffee, a public defender, said a proposed amendment that had been drafted but never released publicly tracked closely with what the governor said was palatable — making exceptions for mass shootings and terrorism. The organization Gun Violence Archive has set a definition of mass shooting as four people shot but not necessarily killed in a single event.

That’s partly why an abrupt announcement — memorialized in a series of synchronized press releases from the governor and legislative leaders — that Nevada leaders were scrapping the bill came as a shock to those working on the cause. 

Holly Welborn with the Nevada ACLU speaks during the "Protest & Vigil for Death Penalty Abolition" hosted by the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, in front of the Legislative Building on May 17, 2021. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

Branden Cunningham and Mark Bettencourt, leaders of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, told The Nevada Independent that there were ongoing conversations surrounding an amendment to the bill prior to its demise. 

"From everything we heard, [Scheible] was willing to work and hear the bill," Cunningham said. "We had heard that she had set time aside to hear the bill … the calendar was open … and instead of a hearing we got the three statements that came out."

Coffee said the press releases announcing that the bill would not advance were a surprise to him. Up to that point, advocates were actively working on the issue, hoping to connect lawmakers with the pollster commissioned by the coalition to assuage concerns.

"I have to believe the concern was over losing Senate seats," Coffee said. "There's always another election. There's always another excuse."

He said he wishes the governor would have shown more initiative on the matter but ultimately blamed senators for not hearing the bill.

“The Senate got accommodated on everything they asked for,” Coffee said. “It's laughable to talk about how good we did on criminal justice reform when we can't get a vote on a platform issue.”

Shortly after the announcement that the bill was dead, Cannizzaro defended the progress the Legislature had made on bail reform and police use of force, challenging people who say the Legislature was not doing enough. Asked whether she was personally in favor of a bill with a carveout for crimes such as mass shootings, Cannizzaro demurred.

“I don't think that I am opposed to having conversations on this topic. That has been happening,” Cannizzaro said. “Obviously Chair Yeager worked to try to come up with some compromise, and we're just not going to be able to get there.”

Though she supports the abolition of the death penalty, Scheible said the decision to not hear the bill was part of a broader discussion.

"I do work in a team and part of my job as the chair of a committee is to ensure that I am making good policy decisions, not pushing my own personal agenda," she said. "Sometimes I get to do the things that I personally want, sometimes I do the things that we need as a state, the things that my body supports, that our coalition supports, and so it's a group effort."

That group effort started and ended with Sisolak, the state’s first Democratic governor in two decades after his election in 2018, but who also was chair of the Clark County Commission when the worst mass shooting in American history took place in his jurisdiction. Sisolak was at the forefront of the response to the 1 October massacre and has talked about the effect the incident had on him personally and on his views of capital punishment during his 2018 campaign and beyond.

Sisolak had previously affirmed without qualification that he opposed the death penalty, but he never formally endorsed the legislation. Asked about the bill as the session progressed, Sisolak stuck tightly to talking points — even reading from a prepared statement when asked an impromptu question about the Assembly passing the bill — to emphasize that he opposed capital punishment but believed the measure is necessary for specific situations, such as mass shootings.

Sisolak’s hesitation over the legislation was likely heightened by the coming entrance of Lombardo into the 2022 governor’s race, where Democrats — with Joe Biden in the White House — are generally expected to suffer some midterm losses. Republicans in state and nationwide have used a pro-police campaign message in recent election cycles, so a death penalty repeal may have added more fuel to that campaign fire.

Past governors — such as Brian Sandoval in 2015 and Kenny Guinn in 2003 — opted to wait until their second term in office, post-midterms, to tackle high-profile policy goals.

A protester holds a candle in front of the Legislative Building during the "Protest & Vigil for Death Penalty Abolition" hosted by the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty on May 17, 2021. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

Activists and advocates criticized lawmakers for not giving the bill a public hearing, though, calling the decision "undemocratic" during a protest and vigil last Monday.

"You have to answer to the people," Leslie Turner with the Mass Liberation Project said during the protest. "It doesn't make sense that the death penalty bill is dead now, with no explanation, no checking in with the community."

Cunningham said those pushing for the abolition of the death penalty spoke with various senators and that it seemed as though most of them were open to considering the legislation.

At least one Republican lawmaker was a likely supporter of the bill — Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas).

"Generally I'm in favor of repealing it," he said in an interview on Tuesday. "I think it makes a lot of fiscal sense, I think it makes a lot of moral sense."

Though she was disappointed and frustrated by the death of the bill, Monique Normand, an anti-death penalty activist whose uncle was murdered in 2017, told reporters after the vigil and protest that the death penalty would not have brought her uncle back and the fight is far from over.

“People's lives are on the line,” she said. “We do have to hold [lawmakers] accountable and we can't just let them get away with, ‘you're gonna vote for us.’ No, we don't have to vote for anyone, we can withhold our votes, our votes matter. Our lives matter.”

Sources: Lombardo set to announce for governor

Undaunted by newly minted Republican Mayor John Lee’s announcement, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo has made the decision to run for governor, sources confirmed Thursday.

Lombardo will formally announce next month and has hired a trio of high-profile GOP operatives, including a former political director for Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee.

The campaign team will be led by Ryan Erwin, a well-respected consultant who oversaw Cresent Hardy’s shocking upset of Rep. Steven Horsford in 2014 and helped Joe Heck win a seat in Congress (and almost secure a U.S. Senate seat). Erwin was involved in efforts to pass Marsy’s Law here and elsewhere and recently was retained by Caitlyn Jenner’s campaign to oust California Gov. Gavin Newsom. I don’t know of a more even-keeled, thoughtful and straight-shooting consultant who has been involved in Nevada politics.

Erwin will be joined by his former partner, Mike Slanker, who has been a consultant to the likes of Brian Sandoval and Dean Heller and is a media expert whose ads have been known to cut (and cut deeply), and Chris Carr, an ex-Trump and RNC operative who will oversee the grassroots/ground game and is as well-regarded as anyone I know across partisan and geographic lines.

It’s a formidable team enhanced by ex-Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison, who was interested in running for governor but has agreed to chair Lombardo’s campaign. Hutchison is a formidable fundraiser; his PAC helped the GOP pick up legislative seats last year.

I am reliably told that some gaming companies have informed Lombardo they will give him substantial support, although some will have to play both sides because Gov. Steve Sisolak has such power over their enterprises. It will be interesting to see, especially after a legislative session controlled by Democrats and one that has intermittently infuriated the Strip, whether any companies give only to Lombardo. (This would surprise me.)

The industry’s campaign contributions could well hinge on how the session ends and the resolution of a so-called right to return bill that is the Culinary union’s main objective and has caused a serious rift with and within the industry. 

Lombardo would have to be seen as a favorite in the primary with this kind of firepower and Lee's recent entry into the Republican party. The North Las Vegas mayor also has baggage, including a raft of votes as a Democratic legislator. But Lombardo’s two terms as sheriff notwithstanding, the sheriff’s ability to perform statewide and handle non-law enforcement issues remain uncertain. And he will have to deal with his own record as sheriff, too.

Filing does not open until next March, and I am still not persuaded that candidates who announce this early will actually file. And I am not convinced that Lee, who has floated more trial balloons than anyone in Nevada history before they lost ballast, will sign on the dotted line next year. At least, that is, for governor.

Sisolak is seen as vulnerable by the GOP here and nationally because of criticism he absorbed during the pandemic for health care protocols that were deleterious for the economy. But Democrats are banking on a rebounding economy to put some wind at Sisolak’s back, and a potential GOP primary is not optimal for Republicans. And who knows whether a Trumpian contender (who has not recently switched parties) might get in, making it even more interesting.

Lombardo’s decision, though, ensures this is going to be a very interesting year in Nevada politics, which, as one who has followed it for three and a half decades, almost goes without saying.

Nine Nevada sheriffs sign onto letter blaming mass illegal immigration on Biden border policies

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building in Las Vegas

Nine Nevada sheriffs from rural counties and Carson City have signed on to a letter blaming President Joe Biden’s policies for increased criminal activity related to illegal immigration and urging the Democratic president to embrace the border policies of the Trump administration, including resuming construction of the border wall.

In the letter titled “Help America’s Sheriffs Keep Our Neighborhoods and Communities Safe by Halting Illegal Immigration,” a group of 274 sheriffs wrote earlier this month that their policing resources are being “overwhelmed” by criminal activity related to an increase in illegal immigration. The letter specifically points to transnational gangs, guns, dangerous drugs and human trafficking as the dangers.

“In a myriad of ways, you and your administration are encouraging and sanctioning lawlessness and the victimization of the people of the United States of America, all in the name of mass illegal immigration,” the sheriffs wrote to Biden.

The letter does not cite specific evidence of increased illegal immigration under the Biden administration nor evidence of criminal activity linked to undocumented immigrants. It primarily focuses on blaming Biden for the crisis at the border — a characterization that is in dispute, as the Biden administration has actively avoided use of the word crisis, unlike the Republican Party — and immigrant advocates have criticized the letter for wrongly painting immigrants as violent criminals.

The nine Nevada sheriffs who signed the letter are Ken Furlong (Carson City), Jesse Watts (Eureka County), Daniel Coverley (Douglas County), Frank Hunewill (Lyon County), Sharon Wehrly (Nye County), Richard Hickox (Churchill County), Aitor Narvazia (Elko County), Ron Unger (Lander County) and Scott Henriod (White Pine County). Neither sheriff from Nevada’s urban centers — Joe Lombardo in Clark County and Darin Balaam in Washoe County — signed the letter. Balaam’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday as to whether the sheriff had been approached to sign on. On Friday morning, a spokesperson for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said that Lombardo has not seen the letter.

Many claims about a crisis at the border have relied upon data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection on encounters with migrants. Those numbers show that encounters at the southern border hovered between 70,000 and 80,000 from October through January, before increasing to 101,000 in February and more than 172,000 in March. 

However, Michael Kagan, director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic, explained that with the border closed to most asylum seekers because of the pandemic, a migrant who is denied asylum and expelled could return to the border again, creating a new encounter with the U.S. Border Patrol, meaning a new encounter is not necessarily a new migrant arriving at the border. 

The number of encounters in February and March are also similarly large to numbers from the middle of Trump’s presidency, as border encounters climbed over 100,000 per month from March through June in 2019. 

“In 2019, the number of people approaching the border was climbing very rapidly, and I don't think these sheriffs complained about Donald Trump,” Kagan said.

Carson City Sheriff Ken Furlong told The Nevada Independent that he signed onto the letter because he was concerned about the issue of immigrants entering the country illegally and “creating havoc in our communities.” He also noted that though he agreed with the intent of the letter, he did not necessarily agree with all of the verbiage used.

“We're tasked with protecting our communities,” Furlong said. “It's difficult to protect our communities, when we're not applying regulation or control over who's coming into this country.”

Though a multitude of studies show that undocumented immigrants in the country are not more likely to be arrested or incarcerated than Americans born in the United States, Furlong pointed to one specific case of criminal activity by an undocumented immigrant in Northern Nevada. In that case, Wilber Ernesto Martinez Guzman, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Carson City in January 2019 as the prime suspect in four murder cases across Washoe County and Douglas County.

Furlong acknowledged that incidents involving people living in the country illegally and the type of criminal activity listed in the letter are rare in Carson City, but he also cited concern for the states that share a southern border with Mexico, including Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California, as a reason for joining the letter.

“I do know the struggles that many of the law enforcement agency fixtures, such as me, have suffered when we're dealing with illegal immigrants and our ability to safeguard our communities,” he said. “I want to support those southern border states that are struggling immensely, just to get through every day.”

The other eight sheriffs who signed the letter were unavailable or did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday afternoon.

The letter has been panned by immigrant advocates such as Erika Castro, a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the organizing director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. Castro said the letter focused on an “anti-immigrant narrative.”

“It's very disheartening knowing that we have sheriffs in our state of Nevada that have those anti-immigrant feelings,” she told The Nevada Independent. “At the end of the day, if they really are here to protect and serve our community, that includes everyone.”

Kagan also criticized the letter as a move rooted in partisan rhetoric and noted that the letter does not provide evidence to back up claims about undocumented immigrants bringing increased amounts of crime to the country.

“I think they mean that a president they didn't vote for is in office, so they want to blame problems on him,” Kagan said.

He also said that the sentiments expressed make sense coming from sheriffs because those officers tend to come from rural, white areas that vote Republican.

“The general phenomenon holds that these are largely elected politicians from areas that mostly voted for Donald Trump for president, expressing anti-immigrant views without factual basis,” Kagan said.

The letter calls on the Biden administration to halt its “pro-illegal immigration policies” and return to “the common-sense, public-safety-supporting border policies of the previous administration.” However, Kagan said that the immigration policies of the Biden administration have not been a significant departure from the policies of the Trump administration.

“I would personally criticize Biden for leaving in place most of Donald Trump's policies so far,” he said. “Biden has left in place a near total border closure… turning away people who are applying for asylum on the grounds of public health without actually much clear public health justification.”

Biden has continued a Trump-era policy called Title 42, which was first invoked during the pandemic by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control on March 20, 2020. Since then, the policy has allowed the federal government to close the southern border to nonessential travel and expel asylum seekers at the border. Groups of lawyers and lawmakers, including Vice President Kamala Harris, even raised issues with the Title 42 policy last year.

Though the Biden administration has granted asylum to unaccompanied minors arriving at the border, the Trump administration had been doing the same since late November, when a federal judge blocked the Trump administration from expelling migrant children under the Title 42 policy. 

The letter from the sheriffs has also been joined by other pushes against Biden’s border policies that Kagan said are rooted in partisanship. Arizona’s attorney general is suing the Biden administration over its immigration policies and decision to stop the border wall construction, and the state’s Republican governor recently declared a state of emergency and sent National Guard troops to the border.

“It seems to me that we have now emerging a pattern that when there is a Democratic president, Republican border governors sound the alarm that there’s an emergency,” Kagan said. “I think that that is also a lot of talk, and it's not a serious contribution to any immigration policy challenges that we face.”

Update: This story was updated at 9:40 a.m. on April 23, 2021 to include a response from Sheriff Joseph Lombardo's office.

Behind the Bar: Lawsuit to open building hits roadblock. Plus: tiny house regulations, opt-out organ donation, state ERA advances and tribal burial site changes

Behind the Bar is The Nevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2021 Legislature. 

In this edition: Where the lawsuit seeking to open the Legislative building to the public stands after a 9th Circuit Court dismissal. Plus, details on a bill allowing tiny house development, an icy reception for the organ donation opt-out bill, advancing a state-based Equal Rights Amendment, and changes to tribal burial site laws. Carson City Restaurant Spotlight returns.

Check this link to manage your newsletter subscriptions. The newsletter is published on Mondays and Thursdays.

I want to hear from you! Questions, comments, observations, jokes, what you think we should be covering or paying attention to. Email me at rsnyder@thenvindy.com.


The legal effort to open the halls of the Legislature to the public isn’t going so well.

On Wednesday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied a motion by an attorney for the group of four conservative lobbyists who sued to open the building in mid-February.

The order was brief — just five lines — and echoed what defendants in the case have said all along: the appeal was inappropriate because it was focused on a non-appealable interlocutory order, which is legal jargon for the procedural order issued by the federal District Court judge in the case. 

The appeal in this case focused on Judge Miranda Du’s order setting a normal and non-emergency briefing schedule in the case — a decision made because the plaintiffs (the four lobbyists) didn’t check all of the boxes needed to qualify for an emergency briefing. 

A filing submitted by Deputy Solicitor General Craig Newby to the 9th Circuit outlines where the initial lawsuit fell short in providing information typically required for an emergency, expedited briefing. It also seeks to have Gov. Steve Sisolak and Attorney General Aaron Ford — named defendants in the lawsuit — dismissed from the case, because, well, the executive and legislative are separate branches of government (the response helpfully links to a Schoolhouse Rock video in a footnote).

“Unlike other cases brought by Plaintiffs’ counsel, there is no emergency directive issued by the Governor mandating that the Legislature close (or open) the Legislative Building,” Newby wrote in a separate filing submitted to the district court. “The Governor understands the risks of COVID-19 spread in our community, resulting in difficult decisions he has had to make. Here however, the difficult decisions for keeping the Legislative Building open or closed lie with the Legislature, not him.”

I’m not an attorney, but I would guess that barring some kind of Hail Mary appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case will fall back to the original District Court.

But even then, the lawsuit still has issues. 

In a filing submitted on Tuesday, Legislative Counsel Bureau General Counsel Kevin Powers told the court that the plaintiffs had “ failed to serve the Legislative Defendants, or an agent designated by them to receive service of process, with the summons and complaint.”

“In the absence of such service, the Legislative Defendants have not officially become parties to this action, and this Court cannot exercise personal jurisdiction over the Legislative Defendants for any matters, including, without limitation, the emergency motion for preliminary injunction,” Powers wrote in the motion, which asked the court to pause all briefings in light of the then-pending appeal with the 9th Circuit Court.

(It should probably be noted that the attorney for the plaintiffs, Sigal Chattah, is running for attorney general in 2022.)

If you made it through all that legalese and are still reading, 1) congratulations, 2) now you know what it’s like to live in my brain and 3) you’re probably wondering where exactly this leaves the lawsuit and potential of a judicial-ordered reopening of the legislative building.

Again, not a lawyer, but I think there’s certainly a case to be made that an expedited briefing is appropriate in this case — we’re already a third of the way into the 120-day legislative session.

But that ticking clock also works against the litigation — legislators and staff got their first COVID vaccine shot last month, and legislative leadership are still targeting mid-April for a tentative, limited reopening date. 

As that tentative date gets closer, I think it makes it less likely that a judge would feel inclined to issue an emergency injunction to open the building, especially if the limited reopening is just a few weeks away.

But I’ll continue to follow the court case regardless; if there’s one lesson I’ve learned, it’s that making predictions in this business should be left to the supremely confident or foolhardy

— Riley Snyder


More options for tiny houses in Nevada

Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) is the latest supporter of a housing movement that began when Henry David Thoreau rejected society and moved into a 150-square foot cabin near Walden Pond outside of Concord, Massachusetts.

Though Harris has not committed to a solitary existence in a small cabin near a pond, nor the modern-day option of applying for the popular television series Tiny House Nation, she did say that allowing more tiny homes to be built in Nevada could help address the state’s housing shortage.

"This is something I personally would choose to live in and maybe build as a permanent residence because of who I am and my own personal tastes," Harris said during a Senate Government Affairs committee hearing on the bill SB150 on Monday. "What I'm looking to do here is to allow those who like to build one ... or who would like to put it in their backyard, I would like to give them the option." 

Under Harris' proposed bill, municipalities in counties with more than 800,000 people would have to create zoning laws for tiny houses no more than 400 square feet in size that would: 

  • allow homeowners to build tiny houses as an addition to a property
  • recognize tiny homes as single-family dwelling units
  • set aside space for tiny house parks similar to mobile home parks. 

Counties with 100,000 residents or less would follow through with at least one of the three options, Harris said.

The bill addresses a need for specificity around zoning for tiny houses which are often a smaller square footage than what is normally permitted for single-family residences and sets up a regulatory structure for the housing type, supporters said.

But one skeptic of the bill, Sen. Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas), worried tiny homes might depreciate housing values or exacerbate zoning disparities.

"I'm not a fan of tiny houses, mainly because I don't want it to go into poor areas. And I don't want it to go into poor areas that I want redevelopment to occur and actually have sustainable homes, good homes ... the American Dream home " she said.

Harris chalked up Neal's comments to a difference in philosophies. She said the legislation would provide an alternative for people who may not be able to find or afford a larger home and a way to increase density in more established communities.

"I also see [tiny homes] as a stepping stone to larger home ownership in that American Dream sense," Harris said.

— Tabitha Mueller


Proposed opt-out organ donation system gets icy reception

Critics of a new bill that would make Nevada the first state with an opt-out organ donation system are concerned that the new method would infringe on personal liberties and might even reduce the state’s donor pool.

The bill, SB134, would adjust the current opt-in system by making Nevadans who update or apply for a new driver's license or state ID card organ donors by default. If the bill is passed, someone filling out a DMV application would have to opt out of becoming an organ donor instead of opting in.

“I'm afraid that Nevada Donor Network has a very deep concern that an opt-out system is likely to have unintended negative consequences that would actually result in decreasing the availability of organs and tissues,” said lobbyist Dan Musgrove, a representative for the non-profit organ procurement organization, during a Monday hearing of the bill.

Musgrove explained that the opt-out system could create conflict with the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, which sets a regulatory framework for organ donation across different states. And he said the system could pose a problem by creating a group of people who decide to not be organ donors and remove themselves from the donor pool.

The main presenter of the bill, Ashley Biehl, a 30-year-old who had a heart transplant in 2017, pointed to the thousands of Americans who die each year waiting for a transplant, as well as Nevada’s “abysmal” rate of organ donor registration, which at 41 percent sits below the national average of 49 percent.

“Senate Bill 134 seeks to help alleviate that burden and reduce the number of unnecessary deaths by making more organs eligible for donation,” Biehl said.

Those who opposed the bill during the meeting, as well as some of the lawmakers on the Senate Growth and Infrastructure Committee, expressed concerns that a change to the organ donation system could infringe on individual rights.

“The general consensus has been over the years that government can't make choices over our bodies, over our personal opinions. And yet, this would seem to do violence to that concept,” Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) said during the hearing. 

Sen. Scott Hammond (R-Las Vegas) also said the change to an opt-out system could potentially confuse people. Hammond said that someone could miss the change to the system and become an organ donor, even though they do not actually want to be one.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. James Ohrenschall (D-Las Vegas), said during the meeting that he would continue to work with stakeholders to address concerns about the bill language.

“Certainly the intent of this bill is to make a bold statement that Nevada would be the first opt-out state in the nation,” Ohrenschall said. “There is no intent to replace anyone's conscious decision as to whether they want to participate or not.”

— Sean Golonka


Nevada Equal Rights Amendment moving on to the next round

The Nevada Equal Rights Amendment is one step closer to the 2022 ballot, after the resolution passed out of committee with a 4-1 vote on Tuesday. 

The Senate Legislative Operations and Elections Committee passed the resolution, SJR8, that would amend the Nevada Constitution to include that rights shall not be denied or abridged “on account of race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, disability, ancestry or national origin.” It echoes language from the federal Equal Rights Amendment, which Nevada ratified (35 years after the fact) in 2017.

Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Las Vegas) was the sole vote opposing the resolution. She argued that the bill is “redundant” as it lays out equality and protection to multiple groups that the federal and state constitutions already protect. She also said the resolution’s list of specific groups of citizens is “bound to miss some.” 

“I believe in the rights of all people… I embrace those voices and the narratives behind those who have said ‘enough is enough,’ they are equal and I am equal with them,” Buck said. “I just cannot in good conscience support a bill that has the potential to harm, exclude or potentially forget a subgroup of people who were left off the list.” 

This is the proposed constitutional amendment’s second round of approval after being passed during the 2019 legislative session. If approved by the full Legislature, the resolution goes to a statewide vote in 2022. 

The committee vote comes after a setback for a national movement to add the ERA to the U.S. Constitution. A judge ruled last week that the effort could not advance, even though Nevada and two other states recently ratified the proposed amendment, because a 1982 deadline set by Congress has passed.

Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford said he is exploring further legal options, and Sen. Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) said she would continue the fight.

“There have been a long list of people who have been fighting for this, hoping for this, and praying for this,” said Spearman, who led the charge to have Nevada ratify the national amendment. “We are the hope. We are an answered prayer. We are the continuation of their work. We will not stop until the work is finished, and it will not be finished until the Equal Rights Amendment becomes the 28th amendment in our U.S. Constitution.” 

— Jannelle Calderon


Bill amends law that protects Native American burial sites

It’s illegal in Nevada to knowingly excavate an Indian burial site, which has been the case since 2017. 

But the current law exempts entities engaged in lawful activity, such as construction, mining and ranching, from obtaining permits from the State Museum so long as the purpose of the activity is exclusive from excavating a burial site. 

Nevada lawmakers are looking to clear up any ambiguities in the law through AB103, which seeks to clarify that the activity in question can only occur on the portion of the private land that does not contain the known burial site. 

“It got interpreted that there was an exemption,” said Marla McDade Williams of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony during the bill’s presentation in the Assembly Natural Resources committee on Monday. “So this legislation in front of you simply makes that clarification to say that as long as the activity occurs only on a portion of the private land that does not contain the known site, then they don't have to get the permit.” 

Although the bill doesn’t significantly change the scope of the existing law, it brought an important conversation to the Legislature regarding the presence of Native American peoples who lived, died and were buried throughout the state before other populations settled here. 

“The core theme of AB103 is to ensure protection of our ancestors' final resting place where they were originally buried, and to ensure Nevada tribes are part of the discussions and decisions made affecting the management, treatment and disposition of Native American ancestral human remains,” said Michon Eben, manager for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony cultural resource program. 

Eben said that just as any other human remains are respected as they lay within cemeteries, so too do Native American remains throughout the state need to be respected and remain undisturbed. 

“Native American remains and sacred objects were desecrated by early pioneers and settlers, but what remains buried throughout the state is still important to contemporary Native society,” Eben said. 

While many areas are not necessarily marked as burial sites, the law holds that landowners who find remains (called “inadvertent findings”) must notify the State Historic Preservation Office, which then catalogs the findings into a database of known findings. The database is not publicly accessible. 

Eben also clarified that while the law currently protects Native American remains, it does not protect Native American cultural items or objects found across the state, adding that this is something “we’d like to change in the future.” 

— Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez


Carson City Restaurant Spotlight: Antojitos la Jefa

I thought it was a pretty good sign when the woman answering the phone to take my order at Antojitos la Jefa did so in Spanish.

And it was another good sign (although a little nerve-wracking for this half-vaccinated restaurant critic) that this cozy joint on Carson Street was positively hopping on a Friday night.

Antojitos la Jefa is one of the newest restaurants in town, replacing what used to be a sushi joint sandwiched between the FISH thrift store and O’Reilly Auto Parts. Loosely translated, the name is “Snacks from the Girl Boss.”

I ordered a gordita with asada and all the fixins and a “pambazo” al pastor — an item I’d never heard of but that entailed a guajillo sauce-treated sandwich roll filled with all the tasty pork taco fixings you’d otherwise find on a tortilla. It was all quite delicious, particularly after watching the tortillas made by hand just behind the counter.

If you miss Tacos El Gordo in Vegas, this place can fill the void in your heart. And at less than $20 out the door for two entrees plus beans, rice and a few chips, it won’t leave much of a void in your wallet.

Antojitos la Jefa is located at 1701 North Carson Street. Open until 9 p.m. Order your takeout in English or Spanish at (775) 461-0771.

Have a restaurant suggestion for the Spotlight? Tell me at michelle@thenvindy.com. FYI: We’re not accepting free food in order to preserve the integrity of the reviews.

A soon to be devoured gordita and “pambazo” al pastor from Antojitos la Jefa in Carson City on March 5, 2021. (Michelle Rindels/The Nevada Independent)

What we’re reading:

Daniel Rothberg and Joey Lovato’s must-read interview with Blockchains CEO Jeff Berns, who wants to build a 36,000-person, self-governing, blockchain-run “Innovation Zone.” (Berns: “I don’t know yet how we’re going to raise money.”)

The Guinn Center does its best Dina Titus impression and finds that Nevada is still on the bottom of the good list of states that receive the most federal grants.

Jannelle Calderon reports on the bill from Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) to ban racially discriminatory language or imagery in school “identifiers.”

A state of play on where state worker collective bargaining contracts stand.

We also report on Sen. Chris Brook’s big energy policy plans for the 2021 session; $100 million for electric vehicle charging stations, potentially moving the state to a wholesale electric market, expanding renewable energy tax credits, calling for more transmission infrastructure build-out, and prison sentences for Hummer owners after 2025 (one of those may not be true).

Unions and labor groups contributed more than $1 million to legislative candidates in the 2020 election cycle, Jacob Solis reports

A provision in the recently-passed federal defense bill could shine more light on company transparency — and possibly affect the millions of dollars in registration fees that Nevada makes on being a haven for “shell” companies. (Reno Gazette-Journal)

Another look at the opt-out organ donation bill. (Nevada Current)

A bipartisan group of 17 female lawmakers are sponsoring a bill to focus the state’s Maternal Mortality Review Committee to focus on “disparities among persons of color, geographic region and age.” (Nevada Current)

Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Melanie Tobiasson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing the state’s judicial commission of conspiring to ruin her reputation after she criticized officials including Sheriff Joe Lombardo and Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson. (Nevada Current)

A lawsuit over MGM Resort’s use of resort fees. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Sisolak lays down the marker and tells the AP that Nevada will be “the safest place to have a convention or to come and visit.” (Associated Press)

UPCOMING DEADLINES

Days to take action on Initiative Petitions before they go to the 2022 ballot: 1 (March 12, 2021)

Days Until Legislator Bill Introduction Deadline: 4 (March 15, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 81 (May 31, 2021)

Sisolak lifts 50-person limit on gatherings, allowing live entertainment and large events to proceed with restrictions

Conventions, sporting events with live audiences and large church gatherings will be allowed to resume once again after Gov. Steve Sisolak announced that he is raising the limit on public gatherings from 50 to 250 people — and even higher for some of the state’s largest venues.

Sisolak, at a press conference in Las Vegas on Tuesday, said that declines in the states COVID-19 test positivity rate and hospitalizations since a peak over the summer warranted an increase in the 50-person maximum of gatherings, which has been in place since May. The new directive will take effect just after midnight on Thursday.

“We continue to watch numbers for signs of progress and whether the current mitigation measures that are in place are having an impact,” he said. “I’m pleased to say the answer is yes, they are.”

But the governor’s announcement comes as the number of new COVID-19 cases reported each day has been on the rise. The seven-day average of new reported cases was 458 on Tuesday, up from a low of 267 two weeks ago but still significantly below the high of 1,176 seen in July.

Though Sisolak noted that the state’s COVID-19 test positivity rate and hospitalizations have decreased after peaking this summer, the test positivity rate is actually again on the rise and hospitalizations have plateaued after weeks of declines. 

Sisolak, asked about those trends, said that decisions have to be made “with data in advance” and said that he is confident that the test positivity rate is “back on track” and “will continue to come down.” According to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, the seven-day average daily test positivity rate was 8 percent, slightly up from a low point of 6.6 percent a week and a half ago.

“If we notice an undue uptick in our positivity and our hospitalizations, we maintain the flexibility to dial some of these things back,” Sisolak said. “But I'm hopeful that won't be the case.”

Under the new guidance, venues that hold 2,500 people or fewer will be allowed to welcome 250 people or 50 percent of their capacity, whichever is fewer. Attendees will be required to sit in their own seats during the event with no-standing-room audience allowed, though their seats do not need to be assigned or reserved in advance.

The limit also only applies to each room, meaning that a church could spread out its congregation between its sanctuary and auxiliary meeting rooms so long as each room individually meets the 250 person or 50 percent limit, whichever applies.

The new guidance will also allow for gatherings of more than 250 people under certain circumstances so long as the gathering is no more than 10 percent of its total capacity. A sports arena, for instance, that can hold 10,000 people would be allowed to welcome 1,000 people, but the attendees would need to be divided into at least four sections of no more than 250 people.

Sisolak said that the lifting of restrictions was meant as a signal that the state is “not only open for business,” but is also taking the proper safety precautions necessary to avoid a “rollercoaster” of rising and declining COVID-19 metrics that could give visitors second thoughts about visiting the state.

“We will open up in a safe, constructive manner, where you will feel safe, your families will feel safe, and all your event participants will feel safe,” he said. “When it comes to Nevada, the health and safety of our residents, workers and visitors who come to the state is too precious to manage the gradual reopening in any other way.”

Sisolak echoed the state’s previous messaging about being the “gold standard” for the tourism industry. The governor said he hopes the new directive and guidance gives businesses reassurance about planning events here and “if they've got one already booked for January, February, there's no need to cancel.”

He said the decision to set the capacity level at 250 was because of economies of scale, and that certain facilities or businesses wouldn’t be able to reopen if that capacity level was any lower.

“We had to come up with a number,” he said. “Two hundred and fifty, we thought was reasonable, it's not too big, it's not too small, it can be doubled as you go to a second venue, and hopefully it'll work.”

Under the expanded 10 percent capacity limit for large venues, each section of 250 people would be required to have its own entrances and exits and must minimize the use of shared concession stands, restrooms and merchandise stalls between sections. Attendees will be required to have a reserved or assigned seat in advance, and staff may only work in one section.

Each section will be required to be separated by 25 seats on all sides from other sections and each individual group attending the event, referred to as a “pod,” will be required to have six feet between them.

The entertainment format also plays a role. If performers or competitors join the audience at any point during a show or event, they’re counted in the capacity total. If not, they’re excluded. 

Live entertainment or other events with attendance of more than 250 people will require specific approval from a state oversight agency, such as the Gaming Control Board, Athletic Commission or the Department of Business and Industry.

The new directive will also set a 1,000-person capacity limit on trade shows, conventions and conferences, given the increased chance of co-mingling with other attendees as compared to other events. Conventions may have up to 250 people without approval, but need to seek approval for an event of between 250 and 1,000 people.

The directive also loosens restrictions on a number of other activities or places, including playgrounds if the local health authority deems it appropriate. Real-estate agents can also resume in-person showings and open houses. 

The directive will not make any changes to current restrictions mandating that grocery stores, restaurants, museums and other retail stores limit their capacity to 50 percent.

Sisolak said his office was preparing for additional press conferences in the near future related to youth and adult recreational sports. As for events that are more difficult to count, such as Halloween trick-or-treating, Sisolak said the state is working on guidance that will be released in the coming weeks.

The state’s COVID-19 Mitigation and Management Task Force voted earlier this month to reopen bars across the state after state officials shuttered them in July.

The governor also addressed a recent spate of violence on or around the Las Vegas Strip, saying he has had several discussions with the resort community and Sheriff Joe Lombardo. During the most recent incident on Sunday night, an outdoor shooting near the Flamingo casino left one person critically injured. 

“I have the utmost confidence in Sheriff Lombardo and the men and women of Metro to be able to be out in front of this and get a handle on this,” he said. “It’s unfortunate when you get some out-of-towners that are coming in and causing a problem on our Strip and making it unsafe for our workers, for our residents, for tourists. But we're going to work hard to get it back to normal and stop the violence on the Strip.”

ICE detainees are three-quarters of infected inmates at Nye County Detention Center

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building in Las Vegas

Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees make up 23 of the 30 COVID-19 cases reported in the Nye County Detention Center this week, an ICE spokesperson has confirmed.

The cluster means the jail - which houses county inmates and immigration detainees - has more cases among inmates than have been reported in the entire state prison system. 

Frustrated community members and immigrant rights organizations that warned about the spread of the virus among inmates say the outbreak was preventable and want to see more changes made to mitigate the situation. 

“We warned of this moment locally, alongside our national allies calling to #FreeThemAll,” said the Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center in a statement shared with The Nevada Independent Thursday night. “The COVID-19 crisis in the Nye County Detention center is the result of blatant disregard for human life and general health and safety precautions.”

Community members and organizations, including the workers center, have called for the release of ICE detainees from detention centers, but ICE spokesperson Paige Hughes did not say whether the federal agency is considering that.

“ICE makes custody determinations every day on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with U.S. law and Department of Homeland Security policy, considering the merits and factors of each case while adhering to current agency priorities, guidelines and legal mandates,” Hughes wrote in an email to The Nevada Independent. 

Nye County entered into a 287(g) program with ICE last year, an agreement that fosters collaboration between the federal agency and state and local law enforcement to detain undocumented immigrants. The program also allows local law enforcement officers to perform limited immigration enforcement functions, typically reserved for federal officers. 

The agreement with the county is a jail enforcement model, which allows deputized officers to inquire about citizenship when someone is arrested on state or local charges and may place detainers on people suspected to be subject to removal, according to the American Immigration Council.

The program has been in the sights of many human and immigrants rights groups like the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. The program was terminated for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department by Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo in October last year. 

Nye County Sheriff’s Office responds to the outbreak 

The Southern Nevada county of about 46,500 people has seen an increase of 50 COVID-19 cases since Tuesday. 30 of the cases are concentrated in the Pahrump Nye County Detention Center and another seven cases are in the Tonopah Sheriff’s Office Detention Center, which only houses 21 inmates.

The Nye County Detention center is the larger of the two and holds 128 inmates, of which 64 are immigration detainees. 

Nye County trails just behind Carson City and Elko County for the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Nevada’s smaller counties, with a total of 182 cases reported Friday. 

While the origin of the outbreak is uncertain, it is likely the virus was spread by facility employees. 

“One of our medical staff tested positive and one of our detention staff tested positive and then it was downhill after that,” Nye County Sheriff's Office Captain David Boruchowitz said. 

He added that the first employee tested positive more than two weeks ago. 

The detention center is in lockdown in response to the outbreak, meaning inmates are not released in large groups but are instead rotated out of their pods, or groups of cells, to complete services in the facility. 

A pod can contain one to 32 inmates at a time. 

Other measures the detention center in Southern Nevada has put in place include increased cleaning and sanitizing and continuing to quarantine symptomatic and COVID-19 positive inmates, said Boruchowitz. 

“Obviously the hope is to mitigate further and prevent any additional positives,” he said. 

These measures don't satisfy the Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center, which has demanded:

  • Immediate release of all ICE detainees in Nevada who are not subject to mandatory detention and an accelerated review of the cases of those currently subject to mandatory detention. 
  • An immediate halt to all ICE enforcement actions, including transfer of detainees  between any Nevada detention facilities, and any out-of-state facilities, including, but not limited to, Purgatory Correctional Center in Utah.
  • Immediate notification from Nye County to ICE regarding the termination of the ICE contract, thus initiating the 120-day termination notice mandated by the contract signed in May 2019 by the Nye County Commission. 
  • An immediate end to the 287(g) program in Nye county and all police-ICE collaboration in the state of Nevada. 

“In April, when we sounded the alarm, detainees were panicked,” the center’s public statement said. “Several sought voluntary departure, sacrificing their ability to argue their right to be in this country, simply to escape the horrid conditions in which they were held.”

Detainees in contact with the center said they did not have functioning toilets and that the cleaning protocol consisted of chemicals being slopped onto the facility floor. 

Bliss Requa-Trautz, director of the Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center, said the organization has been consistently receiving calls from concerned ICE detainees since April and has since advocated for the release of immigrants from detention centers. 

Nye County’s relationship with ICE 

The decision to release undocumented immigrants from detention centers does not fall to the local officers or county, but must be ordered by ICE. Boruchowitz said the sheriff’s office has not heard any word from ICE on the point. 

The Nye County Sheriff’s Office relationship with ICE began in May 2019 when county officials decided to pursue a contract with ICE for financial reasons, according to the Pahrump Valley Times

The county’s decision to approve the sheriff’s office’s contract with ICE also allowed for the reopening of the Tonopah jail which had closed in 2015 because of budget deficits. 

With a payment of $92 per day per ICE detainee and 100 beds for detainees in the facility, the Pahrump Valley Times estimated, the sheriff’s office would earn about $3.4 million in the first year. 

The Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center is critical of the profit made at what it says is the expense of the lives of undocumented immigrants.

“For less than one hundred dollars a day, Nye County is willing to risk human lives, including those of their own staff,” the organization wrote in a statement. 

Initially, county officials were hopeful the sheriff’s department would break even in the first year of the contract, but Boruchowitz clarified that the county has made “nowhere near that” estimated amount because the detention center has not maintained a full capacity of ICE detainees. 

Phase one will be in effect and phase two will not be re-approved or voted on until the detention center runs at the 100 bed capacity for ICE detainees, according to Boruchowitz.

“It’s been a good relationship and we are hoping it to continue,” Boruchowitz wrote in an email to The Nevada Independent. 

National trends 

ICE’s website claims that 900 detainees had been released from detention centers around the country before early May, “after evaluating their immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk and national security concerns.” 

ICE did not confirm whether any detainees in Nevada have been released or will be. 

Moreover, ICE’s detained population has dropped by 7,000, according to the site, caused by a decline in bookings as a preventative measure for overcrowded detention centers. For Nye County, the number shrank from 69 detainees to 64. 

As of last week, 11,828 ICE detainees have been tested nationally for the virus while the population of detained immigrants stands at 22,579, also marking the lowest the population under President Trump’s administration. 

This week, 871 immigrants currently in ICE custody have tested positive for the virus. The number may be higher because the data on the site excludes detained immigrants who previously tested positive and were then released from custody.

Nevada’s response to prison depopulation 

Geriatric parole, or NRS 213, was approved in late April when Gov. Steve Sisolak convened the Nevada Sentencing Commission in response to the public cries of community members and organizations for inmates to be released in order to prevent large scale outbreaks of the virus.

The measure, enacted on July 1, allows inmates with non-violent crimes over the age of 65 to be released early from prison. However, it appears to apply to only six of more than 12,000 inmates in the state. 

For now, the Arriba Las Vegas Workers Center is focused on calling for Nye County officials to remedy the outbreak in their facility. 

“It is incumbent upon Sheriff Wehrly, Nye County Commission, the Salt Lake City ICE Field Office and the elected officials of Nevada to act swiftly to limit further spread of COVID-19 and put a swift end to human rights abuses," the group said.

Updated on 7/12/2020 at 9:17 a.m. to include David Boruchowitz's title.

Podcast: Lawyer John Piro says his arrest while serving as a legal observer at Vegas protest felt ‘degrading’

Interview with John Piro on June 16, 2020 for IndyMatters podcast.

On June 3, Gov. Steve Sisolak tweeted his support for volunteer lawyers serving as “legal observers” for Black Lives Matter protests. He specifically praised John Piro, a high-ranking member of the Clark County public defender’s office and a familiar presence as a lobbyist in Carson City’s halls of power.

But on Saturday, Piro found himself in the same place as many of his indigent clients — hands behind his back and facing down a court date. Piro is charged with “pedestrian intentionally in a roadway” stemming from an arrest that happened at a Saturday protest in Las Vegas while he was wearing a red shirt emblazoned with the words “legal observer.”

“It's a very degrading feeling,” Piro said in an interview on Tuesday with the IndyMatters podcast. “Makes you feel like you're not a citizen in a democracy but more in a police state.”

Legal observers, many trained through the National Lawyers Guild, are meant to serve as neutral monitors at demonstrations to keep an eye out for unconstitutional conduct from the government. Sisolak issued a statement over the weekend saying that he wanted an investigation into their arrests.

But in a press conference on Tuesday, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo asserted that some of the observers were not remaining neutral, instead “antagonizing and obstructing our officers” and becoming active participants in the rally while police were trying to get demonstrators out of the road to maintain public safety.

Lombardo played a series of video clips on Tuesday, including one of Piro’s arrest and another showing observers approaching police, with members of the crowd following close behind. The sheriff said some observers were “seemingly leading the crowd of aggressive protesters” and that one “shoved her cell phone camera up to an officer’s face in a confrontational manner.” 

“As I respond to the criticism of the tactics that LVMPD utilized, I’m concerned about the dangerous rhetoric that has been displayed online. Clearly this is a lot of emotion, often intermixed without facts, that continues to amplify tensions in our community,” Lombardo said. “It only emboldens agitators and extremists.”

As Piro tells it, he and colleague Belinda Harris were boxed in by police lines in front and in back and were waiting to get more information on a fellow legal observer who had been arrested. They first spoke with a lieutenant who assured them they could get information if they waited.

“So we were sitting there on the corner of the sidewalk of Russell and Las Vegas Boulevard, waiting for our chance to be able to speak with officers to get information of the first legal observer that was detained, when all of a sudden multiple uniformed officers walked in in our direction and snatched us off the sidewalk without warning,” Piro said.

Video shows the two, restrained with zip ties, being walked across Las Vegas Boulevard to a center median before officers searched their pockets.

“I’m actually glad that they shared that video because it depicts exactly what we said happened,” Piro said.

While some observers were taken to the Clark County Detention Center, including one woman who Piro said described to him “deplorable” conditions within the jail, he and others were simply cited and released.

He pushed back on Lombardo’s characterization of the legal observers’ conduct, saying that the volunteers were not getting involved but rather trying to get photos and other information about arresting officers.

“This use of the word ‘antagonizing,’ I believe, is purposeful. It's the same type of language that Bull Connor used to describe Dr. Martin Luther King,” he said, referring to the Alabama Public Safety Commissioner who ordered fire hoses and police dogs be used on civil rights protesters in the 1960s. “‘Antagonizing’ is a way to dehumanize people with which you disagree, to try to make your unjust actions seem just. And that's what I believe the sheriff was doing. And it's really disheartening.”

Lombardo said police had to balance people’s First Amendment rights with protecting lives and property. He added that he’s confident in Metro’s ability to investigate its own officers’ conduct toward protesters and argued that the agency has no record of concealing information or purposely skewing an investigation toward an officer.

Piro and other lawyers and legal observers who were at the protests, however, are scheduled to appear at a news conference in Las Vegas on Thursday morning to “call for de-escalation” after the incidents. Piro said the arrest has affected him more than he thought it would.

“It really messes with you, the feelings of helplessness, the feelings of powerlessness, such that maybe you feel your only option is to protest in the streets so that people can see how you feel,” he said. “If this could happen to me, imagine how it's happening to people without my resources, not in the public eye. And how we so easily excuse it.”

As protests and violence come to Nevada, police, electeds and activists forced to have 'tough conversations'

It was about 7:30 p.m. on Saturday in downtown Las Vegas when Mauricia Watkins yelled, “Your phone is your only advocate,” her voice cracking until someone arrived with a megaphone to help her. She urged the crowd to document everything to hold the police accountable. 

Even at the protest against police brutality after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week, demonstrators were concerned about law enforcement violence. Watkins was one of the thousands of protesters in Las Vegas and Reno this week who have participated in peaceful demonstrations that have been punctuated by looting, vandalism and violence.

Black Lives Matter protest in Downtown Las Vegas on May 30, 2020. Photo by Daniel Clark.

The protesters Saturday were angry — angry about systemic racism, angry about police brutality, angry enough to put their health at risk in the middle of a pandemic. Their frustration filled Las Vegas Boulevard. Marchers made their way down the boulevard and back to Fremont Street. 

A line of police was blocking off access to 8th Street. Officers in riot gear broke through the line and cuffed a protester. Occasional water bottles were flung at police as arrests started to pick up. In one arrest, a man was thrown down, his feet came off the ground and his glasses flew off. 

With more arrests, came more water bottles and other items targeted at police. A glass bottle shattered, followed by another. As the tension between the two sides continued to mount, one protester near the back of the crowd said over a megaphone "I feel like shit's about to pop off." 

Shortly after, police deployed tear gas canisters and fired non-lethal projectiles.

The crowd scattered almost immediately. 

“We were having a very peaceful protest on Saturday,” said Korey Tillman, a Ph.D. candidate at UNLV who is studying police violence. “When we marched downtown, every time we turned a corner, there would be another blockade by Metro. They were setting up these barricades.”

Tillman said it felt like the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department was waiting for violence.  

“It's an example of them baiting protesters into violence,” he said. “When they respond to violence, the violence to police officers occurs. And then they start to call the arrests.”

But for police, especially in Las Vegas, the protests around the country have little precedent.

“From people I’ve talked to, these protests are like nothing they’ve ever seen in their entire career,” said Tom Roberts, a Republican assemblyman and former Metro police officer, in an interview Wednesday. “And this is from all over the country. They are all talking about the same thing. Bricks being thrown at police officers. Frozen water bottles. Fireworks. Glass bottles.”

On Tuesday, Roberts called for the Legislature to convene a special session to discuss police reform, a tweet that was liked by legislators in both parties. Roberts, in an interview, said that it was important for elected leaders to talk publicly about the issue and start a dialogue. 

He said that Metro has progressive policies compared to other agencies, but there is space for improvement, and a legislative session would send a signal to protesters that leaders are responding.

“If these protests are truly about police reform..., our leaders should be talking about it,” Roberts said. “And they should be out in the public saying we hear you and we’re going to talk about it.”

Police officers at a Black Lives Matter protest in Downtown Las Vegas on May 30, 2020. Photo by Daniel Clark.

Escalating tensions, recorded on video

Law enforcement officials from both Washoe and Clark counties have characterized the majority of protesters as peaceful. Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo even went as far as saying Sunday that “less than 1 percent” of people demonstrating intended to cause destruction.

Still, both police departments have deployed large groups of officers in tactical gear, prepared to launch tear gas and projectiles. On Saturday evening in Reno, the National Guard was on call, and guardsmen were also called to assist in Las Vegas, Metro announced on Tuesday. 

It comes as questions, across the country, have emerged about the excessive use of non-lethal crowd control weapons to police the George Floyd protests. In Nevada, weapons from tear gas and projectiles to flashbangs and pepper spray were deployed to disperse the protests.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Metro presented a clear narrative. Deputy Chief Jim Seebock said that Metro shared the protesters’ frustration at the killing of Floyd and respected their right to protest. But he said as the nights had gone on, the protests had grown violent. 

“Those that seek to break the law stay behind,” he said, describing how the protests evolve into the night. “These people are clearly not here for peaceful purposes. They are set on damaging our community, our businesses and to cause harm to our officers and the people in the area.”

Seebock said these demonstrators have used rocks, bats, axes and glass cutters. Seebock said that, as of Tuesday, at least 25 Metro officers had been injured while patrolling the protests. On Monday, an officer was hospitalized after being shot during a demonstration. That night, another officer shot and killed, 25-year-old George Jorge Gomez after police said he raised a firearm. 

Metro lobbyist Chuck Callaway, on Wednesday, presented photos at an emergency Clark County Commission meeting of weapons brought to protest. He said the force has seen an increase of violence unlike what Las Vegas saw during the Rodney King riots in the 1990s.

“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” he said. “It’s disturbing, quite frankly.”

On Wednesday, federal prosecutors charged three white Nevada men in a right-wing conspiracy to instigate violence during the recent protests. The three men with military backgrounds met at earlier demonstrations this year to reopen businesses shutdown by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Law enforcement officials in Reno, which saw a day of large protests on Saturday, presented a similar narrative. A peaceful demonstration that turned to violence and vandalism, warranting a heavy police response. On Saturday evening, demonstrators threw rocks and water bottles at a police line. Those responsible for the unrest were agitators from out of town, officials said. 

But reported arrests, at least from Reno, show most people arrested were from the area. 

And photos, videos and firsthand accounts show a forceful police response on large crowds that included demonstrators who were not instigating violence, an action that some advocates worry might have contributed to a cycle of force between protesters and police over the past week. 

Sherrie Robin Wells is taken into custody after police cleared an area of protesters in Downtown Las Vegas on May 30, 2020. Photo by Daniel Clark.

Several of these videos, posted on social media, were shared widely. Rapper Lil Nas X tweeted a video posted by Las Vegas Locally that showed a Metro officer grab a man walking across the street, and drag him by his backpack on a sidewalk. It has 18 million views. At the Clark County meeting on Wednesday, Commissioner Justin Jones recounted how an attorney in town was waiting for a ride after a protest and thrown to the ground and handcuffed by police officers. 

When asked for further comment on its use of force during demonstrations, Metro referred to its transparency policy. 

In Reno, videos showed rounds of tear gas deployed in crowds, affecting journalists and demonstrators alike. The activity in Reno has prompted an ACLU observer to file a complaint. At a meeting Wednesday, Reno Police Chief Jason Soto, who is serving as acting city manager, said he was instructing the acting police chief to review the department’s use-of-force policy. 

“To get back to peace, that moment's always contextualized and very hard to define,” Tillman said during an interview Tuesday. “I think the problem lies before the violence starts.”

He said the issues lie with the policies and mechanisms police use to respond.

That the protests are occurring during a pandemic, Tillman said, creates that much more risk.

“Having to go through this protest to show solidarity has forced me to battle this question, he said. “Do I go risk my life and exposure to COVID for a cause that is threatening my life daily? 

Black Lives Matter protest in Downtown Reno, Nev. on Saturday, May 30, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

‘Really tough conversations’

Everett George traveled from Fallon with his brother Saturday to attend the protest in Reno. 

George, a 27-year-old Paiute and Shoshone artist, joined the peaceful demonstration around 3:30 p.m. in downtown Reno and continued to march throughout the day. George said he never felt in danger but said the hurt and fear were palpable. At one point, he heard glass break.

A small group of people had broken into City Hall. The group caused extensive damage to the building, even setting a fire while there were still people working there. 

Then the police arrived with tear gas. George, a bystander, was talking after the protest as he was hit by the gas. George said that it came so quick he “didn’t even know what it was” at first.

“People started running cause it affected anybody in the plaza. It doesn't matter if they were part of the protest,” George said in an interview Tuesday. “It doesn't matter if they were part of the people that actually did the stuff at City Hall. It was whoever was around, they got hit.”

Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve imposed a curfew and police told the crowd to disperse. Still, around 8:00 p.m., a crowd of more than 100 was gathered in downtown Reno, standing on the Virginia Street Bridge, opposite a police line in front of City Hall. Most people in the crowd remained largely peaceful, but a small group occasionally threw water bottles and rocks. 

In successive intervals that seemed to grow faster throughout the night, the police responded with tear gas and projectiles to disperse the crowds. They were aimed at the large crowd, which included many non-violent demonstrators holding signs that were condemning police violence. 

Demonstrators in Reno hold up a sign protesting police brutality during a protest on Saturday, May 30, 2020. (Daniel Rothberg/The Nevada Independent)

Two of those point-shoot projectiles hit Holly Welborn, an ACLU attorney observing the protest, and another projectile hit her colleague.

“This was an incredibly exhausting and multi-faceted day,” she said.

When incendiary graffiti was scrawled on its headquarters, the department turned a cheek. At the earlier protest by the federal building, she said the police showed an incredible amount of restraint with barely any law enforcement present. She added that the department’s tactical response to the City Hall break-in was appropriate, given the immediate risks that it posed. 

But she said putting the National Guard on-call and using tear gas and flashbangs to disperse the crowds in the evening amounted to a show of excessive force, given that there were only about 200 people left at that time. On Wednesday, she filed a complaint after she was hit twice by a nonlethal projectile, despite wearing a vest identifying her as an observer.

Similar equipment was used in Las Vegas over the past week. After media reports surfaced over the weekend that Las Vegas police had indiscriminately fired rubber bullets into a crowd, striking two journalists, Metro clarified Monday that they did not use the rubber bullets being used elsewhere in the country, but instead “pepper balls” or pepper-spray bullets. 

A non-lethal projectile loaded with a chemical irritant similar to pepper spray, pepper balls, much like their rubber-bullet counterparts, can still cause severe injury or death if they strike a person in the wrong place — such as when a 21-year-old college student, Victoria Snelgrove, was killed by Boston police using pepper-spray bullets to suppress a baseball-related riot in 2004.

Welborn wonders if the response could have been more targeted toward those inciting violence.

“It seems like the default solution are the militarized weapons or these so-called non-lethal weapons that actually inflict a lot of harm on individuals,” Welborn said in an interview. 

For Reno, the issue is a newer one, and Welborn acknowledges the challenges that face law enforcement officers who must distinguish peaceful protesters for violent agitators in a crowd.

“We’re going to have really tough conversations,” she said

A police helicopter hovers above a Black Lives Matter demonstration at the Container Park in Downtown Las Vegas on Saturday, May 30, 2020. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Both urban and rural police departments have taken advantage of a Department of Defense program, known as a 1033 program, that has allowed Nevada law enforcement agencies, like others around the nation, to acquire military equipment. 

In Nevada alone, police departments have spent hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, on surplus equipment ranging from mine-proof vehicles to night-vision goggles to helicopters, according to a review of government documents by the nonprofit Marshall Project. 

Among the 31 local law enforcement agencies in Nevada that participated in the program, the single largest buyer by far was Metro, which spent more than $7 million on military surplus for helicopters, engines and tactical gear, according to federal records of those transactions. 

In comparison, many of Nevada’s smaller departments or sheriff’s offices spent as much or more on similar tactical equipment. The Washoe County Sheriff’s office — the second largest buyer through the 1033 program in the state —  spent more than $2 million through 2014, including nearly $1 million on a utility helicopter, $41,000 on 83 rifles and another $20,000 for 22 sets of “night vision viewing sets.”

Today, local police departments in Nevada still maintain millions of dollars worth of military equipment that could be used when law enforcement intervenes. At least one agency — the Henderson Police Department — has sought to enter into the 1033 program in 2020. 

Protesters face off with police at a Black Lives Matter protest in Downtown Las Vegas on May 30, 2020. Photo by Daniel Clark.

The conversation starts

In Reno and in Clark County, the really tough conversation turned public on Wednesday.

In the morning, Metro came before the Clark County Commission advocating for an ordinance that would ban demonstrators from carrying backpacks, coolers, strollers and luggage, a move the agency argued would enhance public safety for the vast majority of peaceful protesters and officers. But it was criticized by the public for potentially making it harder to protest at rallies. 

Commissioners tabled the ordinance, many noting that it needed to be tweaked. 

And throughout the meeting, they engaged in a larger discussion about the protests and Metro’s response to them. Commissioner Lawrence Weekly raised the incident of an attorney being handcuffed after leaving a protest this week and waiting for a ride-share. Weekly noted that the attorney was also hit by pepper spray bullets, which left a large purple and black mark. 

“We all cried on the phone yesterday in tears,” Weekly said. “A bunch of men crying.”

He said that Metro had an opportunity to provide a model, but needed to address some issues. 

“We have an opportunity to be a model for the state and talking to commissioners across the state, they are saying ‘wow, you guys really are doing some good stuff from community policing to the whole nine yards,” Weekly said. “But there’s also still some other underneath-the-skin type issues — there are some blatant issues that really need to be addressed.”

Metro has touted dozens of reforms made in the last decade that have sought to boost transparency and broadly reduce the use of deadly force by its officers. 

Those reforms came, in part, in the wake of a 2011 investigation by the Las Vegas Review-Journal that found Metro alone was responsible for 310 shootings and 115 deaths between 1990 and 2011. That investigation later triggered a review of the department’s use of force by the U.S. Department of Justice and ultimately led to the massive internal overhaul of the department’s use of force policies. 

Callaway noted that it was frustrating that police officers were being painted with a broad brush across the country, but said it was unfortunate that peaceful protesters were being painted with a broad brush too, with their actions conflated with agitators who are seeking violence. 

Commissioner Jim Gibson emphasized accountability for use-of-force in real-time.

“We're definitely not perfect and, yes, you hit the nail on the head — accountability on the frontline, especially in these situations we've seen over the weekend where emotions run high and passion is out there, and people are very passionate about these issues,” Callaway said.

On Wednesday, Reno took one formal step to bolster accountability.

In a press conference, Soto said that it has been an expectation, for years, that officers step in to stop inappropriate use-of-force if they see an officer using it on the frontlines. 

“We don’t have that in policy,” Soto said. “And it’s a policy that we should have written down so our officers understand that if they don’t do that, they’re subject to discipline.”

Charges of excessive force are not unique to Metro. 

According to the Mapping Police Violence project, which tracks police shootings, use of force by the Reno Police Department killed 14 people between 2013 and 2019. Combined with Reno’s relatively small population of roughly 225,000, it puts the per capita killings from the department at 8.9, or more than double the 4.2 per capita killings attributed to Metro. 

Soto said the city’s numbers don’t support that finding, and he wondered if the report included other agencies in the region, including the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office.

“That was a shocking statistic to hear,” he said. “Our data doesn’t support that.”

In Las Vegas, volunteer legal observers will now be at the protests to answer questions about what rights protesters have, Gov. Steve Sisolak said in a press release on Wednesday.

“To all Nevadans lawfully protesting in the Valley this evening and this week: volunteer lawyers will be observing these protests,” said in a statement. “These legal observers will be wearing red T-shirts that say “LEGAL OBSERVER” — if you have any questions about how to lawfully express your rights or what conduct is lawful, please seek out one of these volunteers."

By 11 p.m. on Saturday night in Reno, law enforcement officers had pushed protesters toward a parking lot straddling downtown and midtown. Most of the crowd had dispersed. Vehicles had been damaged, including one set on fire. And individuals had looted several stores. 

As tear gas filled the parking lot, some people were watching in front of an adjacent bar. Javon Williams said he had participated in the protest earlier in the day, but at this point in the evening, he was trying to observe what was going on. He said he felt a lot of animosity and anger.

Williams, who introduced himself as a comedian, said that he was there to get material. 

“As a comedian, I wanted to put myself in everyone else's shoes and actually see the situation as it was going on,” he said of the protests, which were being live-streamed on local TV and social media. “You can't really understand it by sitting at home and watching it on TV."

In an interview later this week, he said that police “could have done a better job.” 

And in a reference to UNR alumnus and former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, he said: “They could have prevented a lot of what happened Saturday if they had just taken a knee.”

The Nevada Independent photographer Daniel Clark, intern Tabitha Mueller, reporter Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez and reporter Jackie Valley contributed to this story. 

Attorney general, sheriffs and community leaders discuss path forward with race relations

A question about what it feels like to be a black man in America gave Attorney General Aaron Ford goosebumps.

Ford, who is the state’s first black man in that elected post, raised three sons and a nephew. He said he’s tired of having seemingly neverending conversations with them about personal safety amid racism. 

“It’s not fair that my sons who are healthy can’t jog without some retired rogue cop killing them,” he said. “It’s unfair they can’t wear a hoodie without some vigilante taking their lives. It’s unfair that they can’t do certain things and interact with cops in a way that they know won’t result in possible death.”

The tear-filled response came at the end of an hour-long virtual forum Sunday that brought together the attorney general, sheriffs from Clark and Washoe counties and various community leaders for a frank discussion about justice and injustice as a nation reels over the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minnesota. The discussion followed tense nights in Las Vegas and Reno, where peaceful protests devolved into chaotic scenes hours later with violence and property damage.

Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo estimated that “less than 1 percent” of those gathered downtown Saturday likely intended to cause mayhem and destruction. He also said Floyd’s death marked the first time in his career that he has seen sheriffs and police chiefs form an immediate unified front and rebuke a killing.

“Usually, we fall behind a blue wall, a blue curtain — however you want to describe it,” Lombardo said. 

Even so, the group discussed an apparent double standard when it comes to demonstrations: Why did white people, some carrying firearms while protesting the COVID-19 shutdown, attract less police presence than the Black Lives Matter events?

Dr. Norris Dupree, a community leader in Reno, said it boils down to perception. There’s a stereotype that black men are “dangerous” or “temperamental,” while white men are “patriotic” as they defend a constitutional right. 

“When an African American gets outraged, they’re considered angry,” he said, “But yet I feel like when my caucasian brother gets angry, it’s considered a passion and he’s defending something and it’s honorable.”

Ford called on more implicit bias training to prevent such issues. The forum participants also agreed that a renewed focus on community policy, an approach reliant on officers building relationships in the neighborhoods they patrol, is another vital step toward improving relations.

If and when people feel mistreated by the police, they should contact the department or an organization like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which can intervene on their behalf, officials said.

“We absolutely want people to come forward because if we have those bad apples, or if we have a situation where one of our personnel has acted out, we need to know so that we can correct it,” Washoe County Sheriff Darin Balaam said. “And that's where this conversation has been, I think, stalled and where we need to move forward.”

The attorney general and sheriffs also addressed the circumstances under which journalists could find themselves being handcuffed at these events. Metro Police arrested two photojournalists who were covering Friday night’s demonstrations on the Strip. 

Ford said journalists have every right to document the scene as long as they’re not impeding with law enforcement activities. Lombardo said the arrests Friday night came after a dispersal order given by officers on scene.

“They have to move,” Lombardo said. “Journalism or their press credentials doesn’t enable them to act independently of what the law establishes. Now, granted, there will be an investigation conducted with that particular arrest like any other arrest, and we’ll see how the facts bear out under that situation.”

The sheriff also urged people not to paint officers with one broad stroke. Just like the majority of protesters didn’t cause destruction, he said, not all officers have engaged in poor conduct.

“It’s very important for people to understand that a good cop dislikes a bad cop just like anybody else,” he said.