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EDITORIAL: Storied sheriff Lamb led overhaul of valley policing

Las Vegas was built on characters who were larger than life, much like the city itself. Sadly, we now have one fewer such character.

As A.D. Hopkins reported for the Review-Journal, Ralph Lamb died Friday at age 88. In a city noted for those who built the staple casino industry, Mr. Lamb was the longtime rough-and-tumble sheriff who helped keep things under control, though in a May interview, he told Mr. Hopkins that was never his ambition. “I can’t say I specifically wanted to grow up to be a lawman. My ambition was a steady paycheck.” That’s understandable, since Mr. Lamb was a product of the Great Depression. He was born in 1927 in Alamo, grew up with 10 siblings and was just 11 years old when his father was killed in a rodeo accident.

Mr. Lamb served with the Army in the Pacific Theater in the aftermath of World War II, then returned to Nevada, becoming a Clark County deputy sheriff. Mr. Lamb soon became chief of detectives before leaving the department in 1954 to form a private detective agency. In his first run for sheriff in 1958, he was beaten by incumbent Butch Leypoldt, but in 1961, when Mr. Leypoldt was appointed to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, the Clark County Commission named Mr. Lamb as his replacement.

Mr. Lamb won the election in 1962 and was sheriff for 18 years, longer than any other sheriff has held the job, rising to fame when, as Mr. Hopkins wrote, his word was law in a county colonized by organized crime. He was arguably the most powerful man in the county. Darwin Lamb, his brother and a former county commissioner, said, “Even the crooks respected him. When he told them something, they knew he meant it.”

And if they didn’t know, they quickly found out. Mr. Lamb was a sturdy 6 feet 2 inches and 210 pounds. Mr. Hopkins wrote of an encounter between Mr. Lamb and Johnny Roselli, a high-ranking mobster associated with both the Chicago and Los Angeles outfits. In 1966, Mr. Roselli began throwing his weight around the Strip. The sheriff sent him instructions for newly arrived wiseguys: Come downtown, register as an ex-felon and reveal to the sheriff’s men your business in this community.

Mr. Roselli declined. So Sheriff Lamb cornered him in a casino coffee shop, dragged him across his table, slapped him around a while and threw him into a police car for a ride to the county jail. Mr. Roselli thought the treatment inhospitable and left town quickly.

But Mr. Lamb’s lasting legacy was his role in overhauling law enforcement in the region. He converted the Clark County Sheriff’s Department from a mostly rural force to a sophisticated urban agency, and was largely responsible for its consolidation with the Las Vegas Police Department into the present Metropolitan Police Department. It was an idea ahead of its time — and one that could and should be replicated among many local government agencies today.

In 2012, decades after exiting public service, Mr. Lamb was the central character of “Vegas,” a CBS series based loosely on his tenure as sheriff. The show lasted just one season, but Mr. Lamb’s legacy is safe and will assuredly be passed on for generations. He was a perfect fit for Las Vegas — a man of the West, keeping law and order in a burgeoning town of the West.

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