Public safety improves in Reno downtown, but perceptions lag
The public perception of public safety in downtown Reno is improving after years in which business and property owners worked to overcome an image problem — and the turnaround is the result of a collaborative effort on the part of many people and organizations.
“The perception of downtown is not necessarily reality. Indeed, the perception is gradually changing for the better due to the efforts of many entities, both public and private,” says Dick Bartholet president of the Regional Alliance for Downtown.
The city formed a special assessment district in 1996 to fund the ongoing improvement of safety. The funds come from a percentage of the property tax within the district. Recent expansion of the district has increased the funds from $1.2 million to around $2 million, of which $500,000 comes from the City of Reno.
The goal is to create a safe and secure environment where visitors, residents, and businesses can take full advantage of downtown amenities. The expanded newly expanded special assessment district extends north to the edge of the University of Nevada, Reno, campus and west along the south side of Interstate 80 to Vine Street, with additional territory to the east and to the southwest. The area doesn’t include the Midtown district.
Some of the initiatives funded by the assessment district include special police teams such as the six-man downtown enforcement teams, motel interdiction team, bicycle officers, and a community action team.
The Reno Police Department also partners with the city’s code-enforcement and public works staff to identify problems and to address them. Police Sgt. Dan Thompson, who has worked with the downtown enforcement teams, says it’s a holistic approach.
“We have created a relationship with other city departments and with local businesses — casino security, motels, and others. The RPD is not the sole answer,” says Thompson. He cites city public works chief Alex Woodley as a key player in improving communication between departments and allocating city resources.
“We even have a smartphone app to report problems,” says Thompson, referring to the Report2Gov app. “I’ve used it myself to report graffiti, and when I went back a couple of days later, it was cleaned up.” The app can be used by the public as well as police and city officials to alert the proper city department about problems.
Darrell Clifton, chief of security for Circus Circus, agrees that collaboration has been key.
He particularly credits Reno Police Chief Steven Pitts for getting all the downtown stakeholders to work together.
Clifton, chairman of the RAD Safe and Clean Committee, cites a “Good Neighbor” program as a key component of downtown safety. Signers of the agreement participate in neighborhood forums and furnish block captains. They address panhandling, drunks, alcohol service, traffic control and other issues.
“The casinos are now in the minority of downtown businesses, and we’ve learned we all have to coexist,” says Clifton.
One of Clifton’s initiatives, so far unrealized, is to have civilian “ambassadors” downtown assisting with safety efforts. “The ambassadors could handle minor issues and free up the police to take care of more serious things,” he says. Police response has been lukewarm.
Everyone involved in downtown safety agrees that the homeless population is one of the biggest problems, and the most difficult to solve.
The most frequent calls received within the Special Assessment District are for medical assistance, many of these involving the homeless. The most commonly reported crime is trespass, another issue largely related to homelessness.
No one has found any easy answers, and some homeless people are resistant to assistance programs because of their mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction and other factors.
Still, the coalition of stakeholders involved in downtown public safety do their best to minimize aggressive panhandling and other offensive behaviors. One program that holds some promise is Judge Dorothy Nash Holmes’ program for homeless “serial inebriate” offenders. A program dubbed “Co-Occuring Disorder Specialty Court” deals with people who suffer both mental health issues and substance abuse. Both courts programs are funded by grants and are in front of judges over and over again.
Another program aimed at improving the perception of the area is the Downtown Pride Program, another public-private partnership that is focused on enhancing the physical appearance of downtown. Working with property owners and the workforce development organization High Sierra Industries, the city is instituting a “walk-and-clean” program.
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