OPINION: Gillespie’s challenges won’t elude successor

There are precious few surprises in Nevada’s political scene. Big decisions by big players typically involve lots of people making careful calls.

When Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie announced Monday that he would not seek re-election next year, it was a big surprise, because he made the decision privately after publicly announcing his campaign just a few months before. But in looking back at Mr. Gillespie’s nearly seven years in office, perhaps the biggest surprise is that he ever wanted a third term in the first place. Mr. Gillespie seemed to deal with more challenges and crises than any of his predecessors — some outside his control, some very much his responsibility.

His tenure will be defined by two issues: the Great Recession and the department’s use of deadly force.

The collapse of this valley’s economy sent tax collections plunging, just as the department was adding officers under the “More Cops” sales tax increase approved by voters in 2004. Upon the 2009 expiration of a wildly generous four-year contract for officers, the sheriff largely managed to hold the line on personnel costs by working with unions to strike one-year deals.

But the slow pace of the recovery, coupled with the department’s already unsustainable personnel costs, forced Mr. Gillespie to eliminate the positions of hundreds of retiring officers, erasing the “More Cops” staffing gains. The Clark County Commission is weighing another sales tax hike, which would boost the county’s overall rate from 8.1 to 8.25 percent and avert hundreds of officer layoffs. This week, Mr. Gillespie said giving up his re-election bid would give him more time to press for the passage of that tax increase.

The recession challenged the sheriff’s leadership and political skills, but not nearly as much as the fallout from two of the most controversial officer-involved shootings in department history: the killing of small-time marijuana dealer Trevon Cole during a botched 2010 raid on his apartment, and the 2011 killing of mentally ill Gulf War veteran Stanley Gibson.

The killing of Mr. Cole spurred an extensive, award-winning investigation by the Review-Journal that revealed outdated policies, substandard training and an institutional lack of accountability had contributed to the department’s unusually high number of police shootings and suspect deaths. The killing of Mr. Gibson, which happened immediately after the investigative series was published, put badly needed reviews and reforms on the fast track. Some of those changes are still being put in place.

To his credit, Mr. Gillespie welcomed a U.S. Department of Justice review and acknowledged the need for changes in the way the department handles shootings. To his detriment, Mr. Gillespie undermined some of those very changes this summer when he went against a retooled Use of Force Board’s recommendation to fire an officer. The sheriff’s decision prompted the retirement of Assistant Sheriff Ted Moody — who oversaw the changes to the review board — and the resignations of six civilian members of that board.

Mr. Gillespie also dealt with the deaths of five officers, four in on-duty accidents that raised questions about department training and protocols. Last month, officer David VanBuskirk fell to his death from a helicopter. Three other officers died in 2009 car crashes — two of whom were driving at excessive speeds — which led the sheriff to announce a rewrite of driving policies and new training requirements.

For all of Mr. Gillespie’s efforts to achieve cost savings, the department paid out many millions of dollars to settle lawsuits over officer conduct. And the buck stopped with him last year when the department dumped its $42 million radio system after two years of dropped calls, dead zones and other major malfunctions. That brutally expensive boondoggle will hurt Metro’s budget for years to come.

The most enduring part of Mr. Gillespie’s legacy will be the department’s new headquarters at Alta Drive and Martin Luther King Boulevard, which opened in 2011. He was the driving force in consolidating some 50 offices around town. The annual rent of $12.2 million represented a cost increase for police, but the sheriff has insisted department efficiency makes up for that expense.

Mr. Gillespie, 55, gets high scores for his primary responsibility: public safety. Crime rates have fallen across the board during his years as sheriff, following national trends, but his department’s efforts to reduce homicides and auto thefts have been especially successful.

The sheriff was always professional, always available and always conducted himself with integrity. With 16 months left in office, he has much work to do, not only to sustain operations, but to change a culture that, despite Mr. Gillespie’s best efforts, still isn’t transparent and accountable enough. It’s a monumental task that, from all appearances, will take many years more. His successor will have to finish what Mr. Gillespie started. His successor will have to want the hardest elected job in Nevada.

“This is a big job, and you don’t get a chance to turn it off,” the 33-year policeman told Review-Journal columnist Jane Ann Morrison this week. “An eight-year commitment is enough.” That’s not a surprise.

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