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Clark County sheriff bristles at idea of using cops as political pawns

Understated to the point of stoicism, Sheriff Doug Gillespie can be tough to read.

When it comes to making the case for full funding of the “More Cops” initiative, something he has been compelled to do for the past several months, Gillespie lays out trends and statistics by rote without showing much emotion. It’s just the facts, as it were.

But ask him why he didn’t hire more officers from Metro’s burgeoning $140 million reserve fund — an account that has provided critics with their best argument against implementing the legislatively mandated tax increase — and another side of Gillespie surfaces. It’s that side he ought to show the public and our local politicians more often.

It would have been much smarter politics to hire more cops, deplete the department’s reserves and then place the implied threat of officer layoffs into the lap of the Clark County Commission. The commission this morning is scheduled to consider the sheriff’s so-called hybrid plan to increase the sales tax from 8.1 percent to 8.25 percent in two steps by October 2015.

To help bolster his latest argument for additional funding, the sheriff has enlisted Southern Nevada’s chief numbers cruncher Jeremy Aguero of Applied Analysis to break down the issue.

Aguero has produced a 53-page report bursting with bar and pie charts that not only make the case for need but also indicate flagging sales tax receipts in Clark County mean the department soon will operate at an up to $40 million deficit.

As skilled as he is, Aguero isn’t the sheriff. Although he is not running for re-election and will leave office in 2014, Gillespie is the county’s law enforcement leader.

The sheriff admitted Friday there were people in his inner circle he advised him to “fill these positions.” He refused.

“I am not going to use my employees, particularly my young, tenured police officers, as a pawn in this little game,” Gillespie said. “Why? They’ve got a very difficult job to do. They have enough things on their minds at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. I do not want them worried about this job. I want them worried about that car. I want them worried about that individual.”

A member of Metro’s management for decades, it’s possible to forget that Gillespie was once a young cop who was hired in 1980 during uncertain economic times.

“We weren’t hiring police officers,” Gillespie recalled. “I had no seniority. I was the person sitting in the briefing room. I never had someone come in and say, ‘Don’t worry about your job.’ I came here from the East Coast, where they lay off people like they buy a loaf of bread. Was that running through my mind (in recent months)? I guarantee you that it was. The same thing with my civilian employees that over there typing. They’re very, very important. If they make a mistake, it’s a big problem. I want them focused on that job.”

He didn’t need to remind observers, but he adds, “When I ran for this job, part of the discussion that I had with this community was that I was conservative in my approach to budgeting and funding and growth and things of that nature. If you look back over my tenure as sheriff, you’ll see as early as late 2007, early 2008, I was talking within my organization about (how) we cannot continue to plan for this type of growth into the future … so let’s not budget and prepare as if it’s going to be. Then we hit the tough economic times.”

For a few moments, Gillespie briefly broke away from his recitation of statistics and illustrated not only the best argument for additional funding in a timely manner, but also his understated passion for the rank and file of his department.

Gillespie has been a capable sheriff during challenging years, but he is no politician. And his lack of attention to that part of the job, I believe, is part of why he has been rebuffed and even embarrassed by the commission.

Word is that will change this time. The understated sheriff, it’s whispered, has the votes to win with the hybrid strategy.

Who knows, if Gillespie prevails, he might even crack a smile.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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