JACKSON: WHY ELECT THE SHERIFF?
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“METRO,” FAMOUS MOSTLY for killing citizens whether the citizens need it or not, is officially named the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
So why don’t we appoint a police chief, or a police commissioner, like normal cities with a police department?
Instead, thanks to a Nixon-era consolidation between the county and city, our police department is headed by the county sheriff, who is elected.
Well, “elected” is an incomplete description of a process whereby the hotel-casino industry collectively backs whichever upper-level cop’s turn it is to be sheriff as determined by the industry’s assessment of who will most competently maintain Metro’s top priority: serving as a taxpayer-subsidized security force for hotel-gambling corporations. Upon completion of faithful service, typically for two terms, the sheriff is rewarded a lucrative post in a gambling company. Then he (always a he so far), tapping influence within and inner-working knowledge of the organization he once led, renders the relationship between the cops and the industry even more seamless than before.
That’s one reason we elect the sheriff of Metro. The gambling industry likes it that way. Metro’s over-exuberant use of deadly force is not likely to be a priority for the industry, so long as Metro refrains from shooting unarmed whales.
Make no mistake, if Metro’s head was appointed by, say, a city-county board comprising City Council members and county commissioners and perhaps contingent on full commission and council approval, the industry would still wield enormous clout over the selection process. The commission and council often as not act as wholly owned industry subsidiaries. The most hotly contested local government disputes aren’t those pitting the public good against a special interest, but one special interest against another.
But consider the noise made around here every three or four years when the school superintendent job — not an elected post — opens up. For instance, the last guy inflicted damages on teacher-district relations, and then took a powder. Bidness urged a national search, hoping to hire another so-called “reformer,” that is, a replacement who would happily continue to bash unions. But ultimately a loose consensus formed around the notion of finding someone who might restore some measure of comity between labor and management, and the board hired from within. But the board has hired outsiders before, an outsider will be hired again someday.
Now consider the noise made around here about cops killing people. Amid, and among, other reactions, a Use of Force Board was created to give at least some appearance of accountability, as opposed to Southern Nevada’s traditional “move along, nothing to see here” approach to policing the police.
When the Use of Force Board unanimously recommended that a cop be fired for shooting an unarmed man, Sheriff Doug Gillespie just cold refused. Six-sevenths of the board resigned in protest. But no one was held accountable — not the cop for shooting an unarmed guy, not Gillespie for imperiously rejecting the board’s unanimous recommendation, and not the County Commission, which nominally has reacted to Metro’s killings with half-measures and declarations of impotence. The sheriff, after all, is elected. The commission can’t fire him.
If the head of Metro were appointed, people would be looking to the County Commission and possibly the City Council to fix Metro’s dysfunctional culture. Instead of silence, or punting, those elected officials would have to answer for Metro’s actions. What’s more, the commission and council could create an enforcement process with teeth, where, say, flatly refusing to heed a unanimous recommendation from a use-of-force review board would constitute a firing offense. And Southern Nevada would have the option of hiring a police chief who is not a product of the very shoot-first-ask-questions-never culture so obviously embedded in Metro.
In 2002, after at least a decade of halting efforts to reform LAPD and improve community relations, Los Angeles hired an outsider as police chief (not an elected position), former New York Police Commissioner (not an elected position) William Bratton. For decades, LAPD incubated a cultural rot all its own and perhaps there was nowhere for the department to go but up. But before leaving the job in 2009, Bratton prioritized diversity hiring and sought public trust. Los Angeles civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who over the years has been a sharp critic of the LAPD and filed a number of police abuse lawsuits, ended up working closely with Bratton and regularly praises him for making huge progress toward transforming LAPD’s culture. Rice has credited Bratton with “a racial justice vision that is married to effective law enforcement … he knows how to carry out both.”
We shouldn’t expect anyone like that to head up Metro any time soon. Gillespie recently announced that he will not seek a third term next year. But Clark County can’t go outside to find the transformative figure that Metro needs. Instead, representatives from the Metro/political/industry establishment will select a department insider who can be relied upon to preserve the status quo, and then make sure the candidacy is funded well enough to bury any and all competition. And the department will continue to resist, scorn and mock attempts to rein in its deadly force culture. Needless to say, I hope I’m wrong.
Appointing a police chief as opposed to electing a sheriff won’t magically fix Metro. But Las Vegas isn’t Mayberry, and the people who lead Metro sure as hell aren’t Andy Griffith. Efforts to make the department accountable have been systemic failures. Maybe we need a different system.
HUGH JACKSON co-hosts The Agenda on KSNV Channel 3.