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Q-and-A with Clark County sheriff’s candidate Larry Burns

Retired Las Vegas police Capt. Larry Burns, 56, is the officers’ choice to replace Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie.

The longtime SWAT lieutenant is supported by the unions and their membership, and he’s within striking distance of the favorite, Assistant Sheriff Joe Lombardo, in the final weeks leading up to the election.

Burns might not have the financial advantage that Lombardo does, but he has support. He’s backed by former Sheriff Jerry Keller and Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, to name a few.

Although Burns doesn’t have the administrative experience or the formal education of his opponent, he has had a successful career at Metro, including a stint at Bolden Area Command where he continued the community-oriented policing that reduced violence in historic West Las Vegas.

Burns recently sat down with the Review-Journal to get his opinion on everything from Metro not responding to noninjury car crashes to Clark County’s More Cops sales tax, which pays for officers, and keeping the Strip safe to working with police unions.

R-J: Since the Clark County Commission has rejected rate increase proposals for More Cops, what are your ideas for funding the department and filling budget gaps? Would you ask the county to approve an increase?

Burns: There’s still a lot of confusion about the More Cops reserve and what that was intended to do. Are we capable of using any more of that for hiring right now while we’re still digging ourselves out of this recession? The beauty of Las Vegas Metro is we get an opportunity, not just to have an autocratic response from the public safety entity, that being Metro, but we have a real discussion and get direction from our citizens through our county and city partners.

R-J: Metro last year stopped sending officers to noninjury vehicle crashes. The agency instead is devoting resources to policing dangerous intersections in an effort to reduce fatal wrecks. But you’ve promised to return to the old policy and have officers respond to all accidents. Why?

Burns: Citizens want that. They don’t ask for a lot, but that is something that they want, and for good reason. … And I will restore it. And there’s a number of ways to get it restored. There are some short-term fixes, and I’ve said frankly, and I meant literally, day one, to return to that practice of responding to minor vehicle accidents. … We’ll be there to ensure that those citizens, who are in a pretty high-stress situation, receive the help they’re requesting.

R-J: Gillespie promised that Bryan Yant, the officer who killed Trevon Cole in 2010, would not return to a uniformed assignment where he has contact with suspects. Lombardo also promised to keep Yant behind a desk if he was sheriff. What would you do?

Burns: What is the best interest of the community? What is the best interest of the organization, Las Vegas Metro, and what is the best interest of the employee? If all three of those indicate that for a particular employee the very best thing is an assignment that does not have suspect confrontation … I think I’ve indicated the very best thing is not to put him in a position where there is a No. 4 (shooting). Regardless of how justified, how completely necessary the action was, the story would be the other uses of force and that puts tremendous pressure on a community, on an organization and the individual.

R-J: The Police Protective Association recently hired Yant as a full-time union board member. Was it a wise decision by the union to bring Yant in, considering his baggage? And the PPA is heavily supporting you — did you ask about the move?

Burns: (PPA executive director) Chris Collins had the right to make that decision. And then to live with its consequences, one way or the other. … One of the things that people were concerned about was … (Yant) would roll up on the scene and give the involved officers specific counsel and direction as it related to their incident. That comes from attorneys. … The idea is (PPA officers) are there to give awareness to the officer of what to expect next. The process. How it affects you personally, and your family. Some do’s and some don’ts.

R-J: Would you have fired Jesus Arevalo, the officer that killed Stanley Gibson in 2011?

Burns: There are many facts and circumstances regarding his (Arevalo’s) participation in that use of force, and I would want to be privileged to every one of those. Although I was privileged to some, and probably more so than the average police administrator, of that incident, I was not allowed to stay or listen to his testimony in the Use of Force Board, where ultimately the recommendation came for termination. … I’d like to read the entire file.

R-J: The sheriff can overrule the board’s decision, though. Do you agree that the sheriff should have ultimate authority?

Burns: It is important that the individual that we elect as sheriff have that ultimate say and oversight, and that’s why I think this vetting process the community goes through every four years of candidates called the election is very important. So the community can rest assured that the individual they’ve put at the head of the organization is one who is consistently reasonable under the facts and circumstances of any particular case.

R-J: But Lt. David Dockendorf, Arevalo’s supervisor that night, worked for you. Didn’t you have strong opinions and a role in Dockendorf’s future in the wake of Gibson’s death?

Burns: The difference is, as it relates to Dockendorf, I had not only many personal conversations as his supervisor, but I was also in the Use of Force Board during his testimony.

R-J: What about officer Jacquar Roston, who also shot an unarmed man and faced termination from the department? Gillespie saved his job. Would you have done the same thing?

Burns: I was a long way away from that particular incident and its facts, so I reserve judgment not having those facts in front of me.

R-J: Deadly force reforms have been front and center at Metro for the last five years. Where do you stand?

Burns: If it’s predictable, it’s preventable. … It’s important to take a look at what those predictable issues in law enforcement are and to address them in the most effective way possible with citizen oversight, with citizen involvement. To ensure that we’ve got the best possible product out there.

R-J: Do you have specific ideas to improve transparency?

Burns: Timeliness is a huge thing. It doesn’t mean we have to have the completed report and every “T” crossed and “I” dotted before we make the community aware of what we are working with, what we’re dealing with, and what the general plan is moving forward. … My vision has been that on a day of a week, an hour of a day, the same every week, that I would stand before the community … give a state of things for that week, about 20 minutes, and then take 40 minutes worth of questions … so that everyone gets a feel.

R-J: You’re overwhelmingly supported by the unions. What do you say to people that believe the sheriff has allowed the police unions to influence department policy? For example, last year Commissioner Steve Sisolak raised questions about Metro and the Police Protective Association’s contract negotiations during arbitration.

Burns: It’s the responsibility of a community to elect a sheriff with strong values and strong character to ensure not that, not for political expediency, but absolutely right versus wrong.

R-J: Should union contract negotiations be more transparent?

Burns: Yes. … It is the public’s tax dollars, at the end of the day. It’s important they understand exactly what is happening with any contract. As they get it now, they get the final results.

R-J: How are you different than Sheriff Gillespie?

Burns: I’m a real people person, and I think anybody that knows me would describe me that way. I think it’s important that communication skills be incredibly strong. I’m of the belief that the sheriff’s position is to answer to and inform the community, those who have elected him or her and placed them in office. And to select a strong staff that will then reflect in pattern, practice, policy and every day operation those values and desires of the community.

R-J: Is Metro effective in informing the community?

Burns: We can do a much better job then we have done, I think. … (I would) change the climate from one of informing the public of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, to one of soliciting more of that feedback from the public and what their desires are. Something I would change is that with every dollar that was added to the budget that went directly toward hiring another police officer that the public have assurances to specifically where that officer would be assigned. And the difference anticipated that the police officer would make … I think all of us, when you spend money, one expectation is that you know specifically what you’re spending it on.

R-J: How has your campaign been going?

Burns: We’ve obviously worked very hard. You know the challenges, 8,000 square miles, 2.1 million residents, and the voters are everywhere in between.

R-J: Do you feel the campaign has been more successful since the primary?

Burns: It’s moved along well, and we’ll work right up to the last day. When I say 16 hour days, that’s 16 hour days trying to press the flesh everywhere that we can. From a grass-roots perspective, it has been incredibly successful. The commentary has constantly been, ‘When we get a chance to meet you, and hear you, and know what you represent, we feel that passion and that contrast.’

R-J: Cliven Bundy. How do you handle him if you’re sheriff?

Burns: The only thing I would have done differently would have been to do the same thing sooner, before the tensions — which increased every day — and the number of people, which also increased every day, became as high as they were.

R-J: So immediate de-escalation would have been better.

Burns: In every case where it is possible. (Bundy) is a complicated issue. At minimum, it’s a 20-year ordeal. It’s incredibly complex, involves the federal government, it has not been much of a local issue at all. And I believe that appropriate leadership was shown when it was de-escalated.

R-J: Are you satisfied with the way Metro is policing the Strip?

Burns: No. It’s the way that we’ve been doing it because of a number of factors, for a number of administrations, and for a number of reasons. But is it the most effective way? … I do not believe you create ownership of a problem by moving people in and out on an overtime basis, or a temporary basis. … You don’t get the knowledge base that comes with someone who has worked a community or an area for a long period of time. We have to find a way … to put more officers, more frequently, more visibly on Las Vegas Boulevard and the Fremont Street Experience. And there is the “where we want to go” piece of it. … (We need to) look to free up permanent positions that we can place to partner with our security partners and hotel partners.

Contact Mike Blasky at mblasky@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0283. Follow @blasky on Twitter.

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