The Metropolitan Police Department has denied an open records request for the arrest report of a retired Las Vegas police officer who is a friend of the sheriff‘s, despite routinely releasing arrest reports for suspects not affiliated with the agency.
Kirk Hooten, 51, was arrested Thursday on a charge of soliciting a child for prostitution, which stemmed from “a recent incident involving a teenage girl in the valley,” according to Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who released a statement Friday describing Hooten as a longtime friend. Hooten, whose wife is a sergeant in Metro’s sex crimes bureau, retired in April.
In a letter sent to the department Tuesday, Benjamin Lipman, vice president of legal affairs and general counsel for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, said Metro’s decision to withhold the arrest report violates the Nevada Public Records Act.
“Not only does this appear to be an improper effort to shield Mr. Hooten from scrutiny, it also turns the NPRA on its head. The NPRA is designed to advance government accountability and scrutiny,” Lipman wrote. “Transparency is more important, not less important, because the arrest report at issue involved a person with close ties to Metro leadership. The public has a right to assess, for example, whether Mr. Hooten is receiving special treatment — which appears to be the case from Metro’s handling of the routine request for his arrest report.”
Metro’s records division denied the Review-Journal’s request Friday, citing an open investigation, less than two hours after the newspaper submitted its request.
But in the last two weeks, the division has released at least seven arrest reports to the newspaper for suspects in ongoing criminal investigations — for charges ranging from murder and DUI to child abuse and attempted murder. The number of granted requests is likely higher, but Metro’s online records portal system automatically purges records after 14 days.
“It always raises questions when a police department appears to treat the records of an employee or former employee differently than those of everyone else,” said Richard Karpel, executive director of the Nevada Press Association. “Those questions are intensified when the department provides misleading information in its rationale for the denial, which is what Metro has done here.”
Metro did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday, but the agency in its denial cited a “balancing test” established by a 1990 state Supreme Court decision, now a common method of blocking public access to government records. Donrey of Nevada v. Bradshaw allowed governments to withhold records not deemed confidential if officials decide secrecy is in the best interest of the public.
“The record(s) you seek pertain to an open criminal investigation,” Metro’s denial states. “Therefore, they are confidential and must be withheld.”
But as Las Vegas First Amendment attorney Maggie McLetchie pointed out on Tuesday, “In Nevada there is a balancing test, however they have to show more than hypothetical concerns that releasing an arrest report would actually harm the investigation.”
“They can’t just say this circular argument that it’s going to harm some sort of investigation,” she said, describing the denial as a “boiler plate response that doesn’t comply with the spirit of the Nevada Public Records Act.”
Hooten’s relationship to the sheriff also raises “serious concern,” she said.
“It’s concerning that when the case involves an apparent friend of the sheriff, suddenly in this instance they’re treating the case differently,” she said. “The public has the right to know when people connected with law enforcement are violating the law. To me, the need for transparency is greater, not lesser, because this person isn’t just a private citizen.”