- Associated Press - Friday, March 15, 2019

LAS VEGAS (AP) - For more than two years, the Las Vegas Review-Journal has been battling the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department for sex trafficking and prostitution investigation records.

The fight began with public records requests about 750 days ago. In a city regarded as a hot spot for trafficking and prostitution, the newspaper wanted to know how local police were responding.

In February 2017, a reporter began asking for arrest reports, investigative files and other documents.

A Review-Journal report marking Sunshine Week open-records awareness efforts nationwide said Las Vegas police officials responded with arguments, obfuscation and refusals.

In May 2018, the Review-Journal sued. Police have since provided some documents - after being chastised by a court. But the case is still ongoing and several of the most critical records have yet to be released.

“It’s important for Nevadans to understand that in many other states, these kinds of records are available to anyone and everyone, no questions asked,” Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook said. “It should be the same in Nevada, but Metro takes the position that the public doesn’t need to know how it enforces laws intended to combat a growing national problem with devastating consequences for young victims.”

Police officials declined to comment for the Review-Journal story. In court, lawyers representing the agency have argued that searching for the requested records is difficult and that the newspaper should bear the costs associated with locating them.

The Review-Journal published a series of reports this week to join news outlets across the country underscoring the use of critical state and federal laws to obtain government records that provide visibility and accountability for taxpayers.

It found that in Nevada, many governments and agencies ignore the state’s public records law, often without penalty and at untold costs to taxpayers.

In a hearing last August in the newspaper’s lawsuit for police department public records, Clark County District Court Judge Joe Hardy Jr. said the department “has not complied or even come close to compliance” with the state’s public records law.

The judge ordered a police representative to discuss the Review-Journal’s requests with the newspaper and its attorneys.

Instead, the department fought the judge’s order with an emergency petition to the Nevada Supreme Court.

The state high court in January rejected the department’s petition, which forced the department to meet with Review-Journal representatives. That long-awaited meeting occurred last month at the law offices of Marquis Aurbach Coffing, a private law firm the department hired to handle the newspaper’s sex trafficking requests.

At the meeting, the department’s representative and attorneys said at least 12 times they didn’t know the answers to the Review-Journal’s questions or would have to get back to the newspaper.

“The public needs to understand the brutal irony of this unfortunate situation,” Cook said. “A judge determines the police are breaking the law and orders them to come to the table to work out how they will release public information. The police, who are charged with upholding the law, refused to follow the Public Records Act. Then they fought efforts to get them to comply.”

“Taxpayers are paying untold thousands of dollars in legal bills to help police avoid producing records and block scrutiny of their operations,” Cook said. “Police are not supposed to be above the law.”

Las Vegas police began slowly releasing prostitution arrest records in September, but the department has yet to provide the full scope of investigative files requested. Judge Hardy is expected to make some rulings on the case soon.

“While I’m glad Metro is now producing some records, it’s ridiculous that it took so long and was so difficult,” Review-Journal attorney Maggie McLetchie said. “Rather than throwing up roadblocks and engaging in expensive, protracted litigation, public agencies should work cooperatively with requesters to facilitate transparency - and avoid waste of public funds.”

Cook said the unlawful lack of compliance with the Nevada Public Records Act prevents the public from learning all kinds of things about the operations and efficiency of government agencies.

“Want to know whether the coroner’s investigations are thorough? Or whether an agency is helping senior employees spike their pensions? Or how much government workers spend on travel? Or why some schools have terrific achievement but others don’t? Public records can answer these questions,” Cook said. “But government agencies routinely refuse to provide these records even though Nevada law says they must. This has to change.”

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