Coroner's inquest takes spotlight in sheriff's race

At first, the Clark County sheriff's race was about the economy.

Candidates grappled with how they would handle budget cuts in an economic climate where every penny counts: Cut this, save that.

Then came Trevon Cole and Erik Scott. The two men were shot and killed by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department in separate incidents this year.

Their deaths sparked controversy for police. The shootings were found to be justified during coroner's inquests, and the dead men became the faces of a call for change to the inquest process.

Perhaps it was the public relations campaign waged by Scott's family, complete with websites, billboards and banners in the sky, that caused Sheriff Doug Gillespie and officer Laurie Bisch to change the way they campaigned.

Or maybe it was the widespread debate on the Internet over the cases.

Whatever the reason, the candidates shifted their economic and crime discussions to a contest more about who can clearly explain to voters about officer-involved shootings and coroner's inquests.

Gillespie defended his officers while telling reporters he heard the community's cries for change to the inquest process. At a Wednesday night candidate forum sponsored by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, the incumbent discussed the importance of officer testimony, which is not mandatory, and said that could be jeopardized by a more confrontational process that includes an attorney for the victims.

The fact-finding inquest process is intended to determine if there was criminal intent of an officer, not to determine any mistakes made, Gillespie said.

"If we lose that testimony, we lose transparency of the inquest process because no one knows except for that officer as to why they chose to use deadly force," he said.

Gillespie said shifting the focus of his campaign has been difficult at times with the other facets of running a large police organization on the back burner in the election. He said he wants to talk about the budget, crime and homeland security, daily aspects of the job.

"A lot of things are going on, but when you have issues like officer-involved shootings and inquests, it's important the sheriff is talking about those as well and not acting like it's not important," he said.

Bisch blasted Gillespie, blaming his leadership for "a lot of unfavorable incidents happening within the last year and a half that woke up the community." She said her campaign strategy has changed because people want to talk about current events.

"Everywhere I go it's about officer-involved shootings and coroner's inquests," Bisch said. "It doesn't matter what neighborhood I go into or what forum I'm speaking at. The underlying issue is, the coroner's inquest doesn't cover both sides."

She suggested using a type of special prosecutor who can hear the arguments from all sides and present the facts.

Both Gillespie and Bisch defeated four other challengers in June's primary election by winning 70 percent and 15 percent of the votes, respectively. In September, two weeks before the Scott inquest, three in five county voters indicated they supported Gillespie over Bisch in a Las Vegas Review-Journal/8NewsNow poll.

So far, Gillespie commands a clear lead in donations, having raised $192,488 as of June 1, compared with Bisch's $29,300. Updated campaign contributions and expenses will be reported Oct. 26.

The Clark County sheriff is the county's chief law enforcement officer responsible for the operation and policies of the Metropolitan Police Department and the Clark County Detention Center. The sheriff serves a four-year term and receives an annual salary of $156,983 as dictated by state law.

At stake in the race is a shrinking police budget, which was as high as $549 million a few years ago and will be closer to $512 million in the next fiscal year.

Both candidates acknowledged that budgetary issues have plagued the department. About 89 percent of the budget is salary and benefits.

The department is collaborating with other law enforcement agencies, examining contracts, union negotiations, overtime hours, retirement packages and vacant positions to save money, Gillespie said.

Early voting begins Saturday, and the general election is Nov. 2.

Contact Kristi Jourdan at kjourdan@ or 702-383-0279.