RENO, Nev. – The executive editor of the Reno Gazette-Journal was preparing a formal complaint to local law enforcement Tuesday after he said one of his veteran photographers covering a brush fire was roughed up by sheriff's deputies who forced him to the ground and cited him for obstructing public officers.
Photo editor Tim Dunn, 60, was shooting photos of the fire that destroyed two homes north of town in Sun Valley on Monday afternoon when Washoe County sheriff's deputies confronted him and detained him for more than a half hour, Executive Editor Beryl Love said.
"In the process of delivering the citation, he was forced to the ground," Love told The Associated Press, adding that the "excessive force" was a violation of Dunn's rights.
"He was handcuffed and left standing there for 30 or 40 minutes while the deputies were deciding whether to give him a citation. This was after he was complying with deputy's direction and was in the process of walking to the area he told him," he said. "His face was pushed into some gravel. "
The newspaper was investigating, but the three deputies involved appear to be the only witnesses to the incident other than Dunn, who said he did not provoke the treatment, Love said.
Washoe County Sheriff's Deputy Armando Avina confirmed Dunn was detained for less than an hour near the scene of the fire Monday before he was issued a misdemeanor citation for resisting a public officer.
"The deputies on scene used their discretion and did not arrest and book Mr. Dunn, a citation was issued in lieu of arrest," Avina said Tuesday.
A photo of Dunn on the Gazette-Journal's Web site Tuesday afternoon showed his cheek and right hand with large scrapes.
Dunn, an award winning photographer, said in a story with the photo taken by another RGJ staffer that he had been told to leave the area and was directed to another location further away from the scene. He said he ultimately was taken to the ground by two deputies — one who shoved his foot on his back, and the other who pushed his face in the gravel.
Dunn said the deputies accused him of trying to impersonate a firefighter because he was wearing yellow, protective fire gear, a helmet, and goggles. But he noted that area fire personnel who conduct annual training for media are adamant about wearing such clothes while covering wildfires.
"I kept thinking this was not really happening," Dunn said.
Love said the newspaper was preparing a formal administrative complaint and advising Dunn on possible civil actions "appropriate for the injuries he sustained." He said it wasn't the first time his staff had run into trouble with authorities while trying to cover wildfires.
"We have had several instances during the past year when our reporters and photographers were not given access to fire scenes where we clearly had a right to be. But this goes above and beyond press access," Love said in a statement later Tuesday.
"The brutal nature in which Tim, a veteran photographer with more than 20 years of experience, was treated by sheriff deputies is beyond comprehension. Their use of excessive force on a fellow professional who also has an important job to do is shocking. His rights were clearly violated."
Avina said Sheriff's Capt. J. Spencer made initial contact with Dunn at 5:15 p.m. and instructed deputies to detain him one minute later. He said the captain asked a dispatcher for a formal case number for resisting a public officer at 5:22 p.m., issued Dunn a misdemeanor citation and told him he was free to leave at 6:05 p.m.
Avina said he couldn't comment further.
The four-alarm fire that broke out about 4 p.m. Monday destroyed two homes and damaged a third, leaving five people homeless. Three outbuildings and two carports were also burned. One firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation, and rescuers provided oxygen to a resident who had lost electricity at home.
Investigators are trying to determine the cause of that blaze, as well as the one that destroyed two mobile homes and injured one person in another part of Sun Valley on Sunday afternoon.