The Clark County School District has investigated five officers for excessive use of force over the past three years but has refused to turn over records of those investigations — or confirm whether the officers were ever disciplined.
Following a records request from the Las Vegas Review-Journal for those complaints, the district denied the request, saying employment information is exempt under Nevada law.
But the district’s refusal comes after the Nevada Supreme Court recently ruled that a different law enforcement agency violated the Nevada Public Records Act by failing to provide records into the investigation of an officer.
Under the public records law, residents are entitled to records from public agencies, including their city governments, police departments and the school district.
The Review-Journal debuted its “What Are They Hiding?” initiative this year to keep the public informed about which government agencies are routinely violating the law by denying access to those records.
What did we request?
After a school police officer was captured on video throwing a student to the ground outside Durango High School, district police Chief Mike Blackeye and Superintendent Jesus Jara were asked to appear before state lawmakers to explain the district’s use-of-force policies.
As they were questioned during the legislative hearing in March, Blackeye estimated that five officers had been investigated in connection with use of force over the previous three years. He would not say whether the officers had been suspended or fired, saying instead that the outcome of those investigations was “not public.”
Later that day, the Review-Journal requested a copy of each of those complaints.
Six weeks later, the district confirmed that five officers had been investigated over the past three years, but it denied the newspaper’s request for the complaints.
“The actual complaints involving the use of force investigations for those officers are part of their internal employment investigation files and are confidential,” the district wrote in a statement.
The district cited several legal arguments as reasons for refusal. Among them was Donrey of Nevada v. Bradshaw, a Nevada Supreme Court decision and “balancing test” that has been used by public agencies to withhold records if they deem it in the best interest of the public.
“Nevada law exempts such records as confidential employment information, and under the confidentiality balancing tests, thus the production of such records requested is exempted,” the district said in a statement.
Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook said the district’s representation of Nevada law is false.
“This happens all the time in Nevada,” Cook said. “But it takes a special kind of audacity to call for — and get — billions of dollars in new funding from the Legislature, in part to address school safety needs, and then flatly refuse to release public records that directly relate to safety issues.”
The district used similar arguments when it denied the newspaper’s request for records related to the Durango High School incident, citing its ongoing investigation into the matter. The district has yet to furnish those records, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada ultimately sued the district over its failure to release them.
At the legislative hearing in March, Blackeye said he had not experienced this level of political pressure from “certain organizations in the community” in his 30-year career, saying the pressure “does not help the investigative process whatsoever.”
Recent Nev. Supreme Court ruling
But just a week after Blackeye and Jara appeared before legislators and said the investigations into its officers were not public information, the Nevada Supreme Court signaled otherwise.
In 2019, the Metropolitan Police Department denied a request for records related to a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper who was alleged to have attempted to have his wife harmed or killed.
On March 30, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that the records could be released with limited redactions. In its opinion, the court said government agencies cannot refuse to disclose records when “selective and narrow redactions of the records” would suffice to protect any legitimate confidentiality interests at stake.
Review-Journal Chief Legal Officer Benjamin Lipman said there is no legitimate reason to withhold the records in their entirety, and that the Review-Journal has pointed out to the district on numerous occasions that its response is a violation of the Nevada Public Records Act.
“This sort of repeated violation of Nevada law by a governmental entity is disappointing, to say the least,” Lipman said.
The “What Are They Hiding?” column was created to educate Nevadans about transparency laws, inform readers about Review-Journal coverage being stymied by bureaucracies, and shame public officials into being open with the hardworking people who pay all of government’s bills. Were you wrongly denied access to public records? Share your story with us at email@example.com.