Washoe County is facing a wrongful death lawsuit from the family of a man who died during a struggle with deputies at the county jail. The suit comes just after the Reno Gazette-Journal reported an investigative series on a spike in deaths at the jail. Let's turn to our News Director Michelle Billman and Bob Conrad of ThisisReno to learn more.
KUNR: Bob, you recently spoke with government watchdog reporter Anjeanette Damon with the Reno Gazette-Journal, who has wrapped up a year-long investigation into an increase in deaths at the jail. What did she tell you about what she learned through this process?
Bob Conrad: I think there are two key points that came out of that series. One is that there were a high number of deaths at the Washoe County Sheriff’s Detention Facility. You know, a handful of those were suicides, some were from natural causes, and then some were at the hands of deputies of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office.
The second is that this all happened in a relatively short amount of time. Anjeanette reached out to be interviewed on the ThisisReno.com podcast and here’s some of what she had to say about the series.
“What we found was just the sheer number of deaths from suicides, homicides due to police restraint techniques or excited delirium, and the accidental deaths were significantly higher since January 1, 2015,” Damon explained. “Before that, there was an average of one, maybe two, in some cases zero deaths a year. In 2015, there were seven deaths, and in 2016, there were six deaths. And when we calculated the rate to compare that nationally, it’s almost five-times higher than the national average.”
KUNR: And in Damon’s reporting, does she point to any systemic problems that could be leading to these increased deaths?
BC: Yeah, I think there are another couple of points that are key. One is that the health provider for the jail, there’s been a turnover in service providers over there, which can cause a disruption in how the inmates are treated, levels of staffing, training, etc. So I think that’s Issue #1. The other, which I think both Anjeanette and Sheriff Chuck Allen really keyed in on is the condition of the mental health of the people coming into the facility. Both said that that is of great concern in our community and has definitely contributed to some of these issues.
KUNR: You also spoke with Sheriff Chuck Allen. He runs the jail and he has publicly responded to the paper’s investigation. What did he have to say to you?
BC: The series came out and then after it was run in the RGJ, Sheriff Allen issued a very scathing statement to the press pretty soon after decrying how it was covered in the paper. He did not seem pleased with how it was covered in the paper, so we reached out to him to get his perspective and here’s what he had to say:
“I can clearly admit that we did have increases these two years I’ve been here,” Allen said. “I also noted that the Sheriff’s Office had a spike in suicide deaths and deaths in the jail in the years 2004, 2005, and 2006, just the three-year timeframe before she started to look into everything. And I also thanked her and her team for coming in to create additional awareness about the mental health concerns, the drug abuse concerns, and that some of these deaths are just a true reflection of the types of folks we’re dealing with in the community.”
KUNR: Bob, is it clear at this point that the RGJ’s coverage is sparking any real change in the community?
BC: I think it is sparking a dialog. Obviously, we’ve been a part of that at this point now, so I think there’s been a lot of chatter about this in the community. The county commissioners are somewhat concerned about how much control or lack thereof they have over the sheriff. Because it is an elected position, they’re feeling somewhat powerless, so there’s a lot of concern about how does an operation like the Sheriff’s detention facility have some sort of external oversight for when things like this come up that people can have some level of confidence in.