The Las Vegas Review-Journal sued the Metropolitan Police Department on Thursday for records related to the historic Alpine Motel Apartments fire.
Metro repeatedly denied requests for the records, despite extensive efforts by the newspaper to resolve the issue outside a courtroom. However, two hours after the 30-page lawsuit was filed in Clark County District Court, the agency agreed to release related 911 calls, radio traffic and “certain portions” of body camera footage at no charge.
In addition to those records, the newspaper is seeking incident reports and witness and officer statements related to the blaze, which broke out early Dec. 21 inside a rundown apartment building in downtown Las Vegas.
Metro has opened a criminal investigation into the city’s deadliest residential fire, which killed six people, injured 13 more and left nearly 50 people without a home.
The lawsuit came after several detailed email exchanges between attorneys for both parties regarding Metro’s failure to comply with the Nevada Public Records Act.
Reasons for denial
In its refusals, Metro cited an “open investigation” and 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 newspaper’s lawsuit also came a day after Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo’s annual State of Metro address. The majority of media outlets in the Las Vegas Valley, including the Review-Journal, were not invited to the event.
During his roughly hourlong address, which was livestreamed by KLAS-TV, Channel 8, on its website, Lombardo characterized the volume of public records requests submitted to Metro as a “challenge” that his agency has “to deal with.”
“I can only imagine it’s going to get worse, and it’s almost getting to where a huge amount of our resources is not helping what our mission is,” he said. “It’s just for that zest for information for people to have it, and ability for them to sue us in the justice system for our failure to act. That’s one of the challenges we have to deal with.”
A similar request for Las Vegas Fire Department 911 calls and radio traffic was granted by city officials.
Other city records previously obtained by the newspaper regarding the Alpine fire, for example, also revealed that the building had not been inspected by the Las Vegas Fire Department for nearly three years. This week, city officials vowed to implement a proactive fire inspection and enforcement plan for residential hotels and motels.
“If Las Vegas police simply complied with state law, the department would have significantly more resources for policing,” Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook said Thursday. “Instead, Metro dedicates personnel to fighting transparency and spends hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on outside attorneys despite loss after loss in court.”
The Review-Journal previously sued Metro for records related to sex trafficking and the Oct. 1, 2017, mass shooting, gaining court-ordered access to public information in each case.
“How and why the Alpine fire happened and how law enforcement responded are matters of public concern, and the public has the right to know all the facts. It’s unfortunate that Metro is so resistant to transparency and litigation had to be filed to vindicate the people’s right to know,” said Maggie McLetchie, the Review-Journal’s attorney.