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Advocates Call On Lawmakers To Address Police Reform

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(David Calvert via AP, Pool)

The Assembly meets on the first day of the 31st Special Session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City, Nev., on Wednesday, July 8, 2020.

Lawmakers are meeting this week in Carson City for a special session to grapple with the pandemic’s impact on the state budget.

But one issue they’re not talking about – at least for now – is police reform.

A coalition of activists, defense attorneys and labor groups are calling on Governor Steve Sisolak to allow lawmakers to address the regulations around law enforcement in Nevada.

Kendra Bertschy is an attorney with the Washoe County Public Defender’s Office. She is among those advocating for changes to be made.

"What we're asking for is simple and starting with meaningful reforms that will really assist in creating transparency and accountability, which will lead to trusting our civil servants again," she said.

One reform Bertschy and others are calling for is the repeal of Senate Bill 242, which was passed and signed into law last legislative session.

Supporters of the bill said it protects police officers but opponents say it protects police officers from facing consequences of misconduct.

"We don't want to protect - and I'll just use the phrase that I've heard from law enforcement - we don't want to protect those bad apples," she said, "And so by repealing portions of 242 will allow us to, in essence, protect the good officers by ensuring that the ones who are engaged in misconduct are actually receiving punishment for it." 

Support comes from

The ACLU of Nevada also wants to see changes made to SB242. Communications Director Wesley Juhl said the bill is incredibly problematic.

"It's a major obstacle to transparency and accountability," he said, "It even restricts the information that can be brought up in discovery in civil cases."

He said if someone was seeking justice outside of a law enforcement agencies' internal investigations this bill would get in the way of that.

Another change advocates are looking for from legislators is the creation of an independent body to oversee investigations of police officers. 

Bertschy said it is a big issue for people impacted by police misconduct and the community at large that is looking for reforms.

"They want to ensure that justice is being pursued on behalf of their loved ones and the best way to do that is through some independent body to ensure that someone is really seeking justice for that individual," she said.

Also on the list is a ban on chokeholds by law enforcement across the state. 

"Just to make sure the kinds of things that we saw with George Floyd never happen again here in Nevada," Juhl said.

This week Las Vegas Metro Police announced it would restrict a maneuver called the lateral vascular neck restraint. The maneuver cuts off blood flow to a person's brain. Officers will now only be allowed to use it in extreme circumstances.

Juhl said Metro's decision does not go far enough. 

"If you're putting hands on someone's neck, it's a chokehold, and regardless, police officers shouldn't have the right to use a technique on someone that's going to restrict the flow of blood or oxygen," he said.

He said he's glad that Metro has finally admitted that the lateral vascular neck restraint is a lethal restraint but the department needs to get rid of it entirely. 

Other reforms advocates would like to see happen are body cameras on all law enforcement officers, standardized rules for those body cameras, changes to qualified immunity for police and improving funding for other social services so police aren't sent to calls like people in mental health crises and homelessness. 

Yvette Williams is the chair of the Clark County Black Caucus, which works to activate and engage black voters. 

She said the black community has been asking for those reforms for years, but lawmakers have been working at a "turtle's run."

Now, with a new generation of protesters using "extreme agitation," things might change, she said.

"Where the message is clear that it's not okay to continue business as usual and start to demand those changes and if those changes cannot occur with the current government then we need to then change who is responsible for our government," she said,

Williams said her group has talked to lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and they support reforms.

"There is an appetite for it," she said, "And I have to say this, there is an expectation that this session there will be some kinds of relief for our community around police reform and criminal justice reforms."

Despite the expectations, Gov. Sisolak has said police and criminal justice reforms will not be addressed in this special session. 

Still, Bertschy said she is hopeful lawmakers will tackle the issues brought up by protesters, attorneys, community activists and others during this special session. She notes the changes they're asking for will have an immediate impact.

"The reforms that we're proposing are minor yet meaningful reforms where the majority of them won't cost additional money," she said, "That's why we believe that these reforms that we are purposing should be done during a special session now." 

Guests

Kendra Bertschy, attorney, Washoe County Public Defender’s Office; Yvette Williams, Chair, Clark County Black Caucus; Wesley Juhl, communications manager, ACLU Nevada

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