SUN VALLEY, NEVADA – A 60-year-old Reno Gazette-Journal photojournalist was pushed to the ground, handcuffed and suffered minor injuries Monday after sheriff’s deputies alleged he obstructed and resisted them while trying to take photographs of a destructive fire in Sun Valley.
About 5:42 p.m. Monday, Washoe County Sheriff’s Office deputies cited Tim Dunn for obstruction and resisting.
Dunn, the newspaper’s photo director and a 21-year employee there, was taking photos of a fire that broke out near Flora Way and East Fourth Avenue. The fire ultimately destroyed two homes and multiple structures.
Dunn said he was told to leave the area and was directed to another location farther from the scene. He said he was then taken to the ground by two deputies – one who shoved his foot on Dunn’s back and the other who pushed his face in the gravel. Dunn’s cheek has a large scrape on it.
Dunn said the deputies accused him of trying to impersonate a firefighter because he was wearing yellow protective fire gear, a helmet and goggles. However, annual wildfire training for media conducted by fire officials recommends such fire gear.
“I kept thinking this was not really happening,” Dunn said.
Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, called it “absolutely preposterous” that Dunn could have been mistaken for a firefighter, and said Dunn’s gear is called for in the 20-page Sierra Front Media Fire Guide published by an interagency coalition that includes the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Nevada Division of Forestry and others.
“Please keep in mind appropriate attire when you are covering fire operations. … We cannot guarantee that the supply unit will have sizes of fire clothing that will fit you. It is always best to come to a wildfire fully equipped,” according to the guide. It also states, “Remember that the decision to assume risk remains with the journalist.”
“The whole idea of ‘move or you’re going to be arrested’ is way outside that policy,” Smith said.
Sheriff’s office spokesman Deputy Armando Avina said the deputies used their discretion and did not arrest Dunn. Avina said because reports in the case have not been completed, he could not comment on the incident.
Beryl Love, Gazette-Journal executive editor, said there have been several instances during the past year in which reporters and photographers were not given access to scenes where they had a right to be. But Love said Monday’s incident goes above and beyond press access.
“The brutal nature in which Tim, a veteran photographer with more than 20 years experience, was treated by sheriff’s deputies is beyond comprehension,” Love said in a statement. “Their use of excessive force on a fellow professional who also has an important job to do is shocking. His rights were clearly violated.”
Love said the newspaper is preparing a formal administrative complaint and is advising Dunn on possible civil actions related to his injuries.
Smith said he doesn’t remember any such incident in the past 20 years.
“There are occasionally disagreements over where people should be and how much access there is, but I’ve never heard of a deputy actually beating up a photographer,” he told the Associated Press. “I’m outraged.”
Dunn said he was asked by a man wearing a T-shirt, later identified as Capt. John Spencer, who he was with. After Dunn said he responded that he was with the Gazette-Journal, he said Spencer told him to go down the hill where other media had been directed.
Dunn said that after he complained the area was too far away for him to take photos, Spencer escorted him down the hill and said Dunn did not have any identification.
After Dunn said he told Spencer he wasn’t asked to show identification, their conversation became heated. Soon, Dunn said, the two deputies arrived and handcuffed him after taking him to the ground.
“I was proceeding out of the area and was irritated they wouldn’t let me do my job, but I was doing what they told me,” Dunn said. “… I don’t know why they felt they had to take me down. I’m a 60-year-old guy carrying camera equipment.”
Dunn said he always has respected law enforcement and the job they do. He said Monday’s incident disappointed him.
“My rights were violated, and the force they used was not necessary,” he said.
Smith said he spent much of Tuesday researching relevant state statutes, rules and regulations. He said fire officials and law officers “clearly do not have the authority to order the media around at any kind of an emergency site.” He said obvious exceptions include “if somebody is obstructing the firefighters from getting to the scene or doing their job, or there is some imminent danger the reporter or photographer is not aware of — and in that case, they should be advising them.”
“Nevada journalists are trained how to respond to wildfires,” said Smith, who intends to support the newspaper in its action. “It sounds to me like the fire officials and deputies need to be trained on how to respond to the media.”
An Aug. 1 court date is scheduled in Sparks Justice Court.