Records are public when Metro says so


I called Sheriff Doug Gillespie's office Nov. 1, looking for the report on the Sept. 15 traffic accident involving Clark County Detention Center guard Victor Hunter.

As I reported last week, the corrections officer died of a massive heart attack a block and a half from the jail after reportedly being given a shot and told to drive home when he'd displayed every classic symptom of a heart attack on the job.

According to several people who have read it, the report I sought says the infirmary nurse, retained by the contractor NaphCare to tend to the jail's inmates, gave Hunter a shot of Phenergan and sent him home.

The sheriff's office transferred me to public information officer Bill Cassell, who told me I'd have to hie myself down to the records office at the department's new Police Plaza headquarters on Martin Luther King Boulevard. They'd pull the report, redact it and send it to him, at which point he'd send it to me, he said.

"What will they redact?" I asked.

"Personal information," Mr. Cassell said.

I went down to the new records office. I was called to a window after half an hour, where I asked for accident report LVMPD-110915-4568, which is a public document.

The young clerk asked if I was a member of the family. Nope. She asked if I was from an attorney's office. Nope. She seemed confused, asking why I would want such a document.

"It's a public document, and I want a copy," I said, judging no more reason was necessary under the state's public records law.

The puzzled young lady had apparently never encountered such a situation before. "What specific information are you looking for in the report?" she asked.

"The part where it discusses his medical treatment at the jail before they put him in his car and sent him home that night," I said. That section is about 35 pages long. "And we may want to compare it with the version in the possession of the widow, so I'd appreciate getting the whole report."

The clerk said she could see the portion of the report I was talking about, on her screen, but that she couldn't release it to me, because that wasn't "the public part of the document."

"The whole incident report is a public record," I replied. "They all are."

The clerk asked for my name and went to see her supervisor. She came back and said she couldn't release the 35-page "supplemental report" of this public document to me, because she didn't have special permission from Cassell.

And because they'd kept me waiting for half an hour, it was now past 5 p.m., and they couldn't reach Cassell. All they could sell me for $9 was a four-page "initial report" giving the makes and models of the vehicles and the names of the two drivers, with three added blank pages attached.

I bought the report. At the bottom of the report it says, "On scene report. ... See Accident Investigation Supplement."

But I can't see the supplement, of course. They wouldn't let me.

At the bottom, stamped in red ink, was a warning: "Secondary Dissemination of any kind is prohibited and could subject the offender to Criminal and Civil Liability."

Wrong. For example, the small section of the report I was allowed to buy says Mr. Hunter was driving a 1995 Honda Accord, which is now being held hostage by Ewing Brothers Towing. There. I just committed "secondary dissemination" of a public document. Please tell me what statute I've just violated, and when I should expected to be arrested.

The next day, the editor of the newspaper sent a formal letter to the sheriff, requesting the document under the Nevada public records law. On Thursday, a spokesman in Metro's legal department said it would be several days before they could get a lawyer to review this public document and decide whether to release it.

How many people, in recent years, have paid Metro $9 for an accident report, believing what they got was the entire public document, without even knowing to ask for the "Supplement Report"?

What is Metro covering up? Hunter's sergeant told his widow that Hunter's on-duty heart attack would show up on surveillance video at the jail, possibly the most videotaped building in the county. The head of the local police union also told me the video would be all-important in determining exactly what happened. So where's the video footage?

Because Metro is self-insured for workers' compensation, why doesn't the department just OK the widow Noreta Hunter's workers' compensation claim for her husband's death?

Why don't they acknowledge Victor Hunter's death was job-related, allowing the family to seek federal benefits under the Bureau of Justice Assistance Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program?

Why didn't Victor Hunter get an honors funeral, which only costs the department about $5,000, and which is commonly granted even to officers who die in accidents they caused? If it's the cost, they could file a "subrogation" claim to recover those costs from NaphCare. Couldn't they?

What's going on, here?

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Review-Journal and author of the books "Send in the Waco Killers" and "The Black Arrow." See www.vinsuprynowicz.com.

 

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