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July 25, 2014

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Q+A:

Sheriff Doug Gillespie on funerals, budget battles and the key to solving conflicts peacefully

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L.E. Baskow

Sheriff Doug Gillespie talks during an interview at Metro Headquarters on Friday, June 6, 2014.

Sheriff Doug Gillespie Exit Interview

Sheriff Gillespie gives an exit interview at Metro Headquarters on Friday, June 6, 2014. Launch slideshow »

Sheriff Doug Gillespie has led Nevada’s largest law enforcement agency for the last seven and a half years.

In that time, he’s attended the funerals of seven Metro Police officers. It’s the toughest part of the job.

For the last three weeks, Gillespie has stood in front of TV cameras to explain the unexplainable: Why would Jared and Amanda Miller move from Indiana to Las Vegas seeking a fresh start, then go on a shooting rampage that left two Metro officers, a third person and the Millers dead?

Gillespie has been calm and professional in his press briefings, earning praise from other leaders in the twilight of his 34-year career.

Retiring after 2014, Gillespie has endorsed Assistant Sheriff Joe Lombardo in his runoff against retired Metro Capt. Larry Burns. The sheriff is one of Nevada’s most powerful politicians. He oversees 2,000 officers and protects 40 million Strip tourists a year and billions of dollars in Strip property.

Gillespie sat down with the Sun to talk about his career two days before the June 8 shooting of officers Alyn Beck and Igor Soldo. He talked again Monday about the aftermath of the shooting. His answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What’s been the hardest part of the job?

The five line-of-duty deaths. Four in 2009 and one in 2013. (The deaths Beck and Soldo made it seven deaths since Gillespie took office in 2007.) When we lost four in one year, that was … no one wants to go through that. I still keep in contact with the families and do whatever we can.

What do those tragedies teach you? Especially after the traffic accident death of Officer James Manor. (Gillespie initially reported that a citizen driver was to blame. But that turned out not to be the case.)

I received information that morning that turned out not to be accurate with regard to (Manor’s) speed and lights and siren. So what I learned there is, don't be quick to put information out.

Over the last 18 months or so, three Metro officers have committed suicide. What can you say about that?

The policing profession has always had a high level of suicides when you compare it to others. There’s a lot of stress associated with the job and a lot looking in don't see that. We talk about it in the police academy. We offer services to our employees through the employee assistance program.

Are cops more apt to turn to their tools these days (guns, batons, Tasers) compared with the past when verbal communication was used more often?

Any officer will tell you that when it comes to communication skills the act of listening is key to our success. In my academy, we talked about this (he pointed to his mouth) as the most valuable tool. No matter how big or fast your defensive tactics are, there are people out there who are bigger and stronger. So, the best way to deal with it is to deescalate it, to slow it down.

How did you go 34 years without shooting your gun?

Some of that is luck. The other side of it is, I never considered myself to be a big confrontational kind of person. I always relied heavily on verbal skills and confidence and ability to deal with those situations.

Are people, the public, more inclined to confront police these days?

The climate has changed since I've been involved in policing. There was a lot more respect for authority in ‘80 than today. People are quicker to challenge officers in uniform than when I first hired on. No doubt about it. There were guns out there when I was working, but not the quality of firearms nor the number of firearms. It’s a different job than when I was out there.

I’ve seen a few citizens walking around downtown with visible guns on their hip in holsters. Do you get many calls about those?

We’re an open-carry state and people who come here from other jurisdictions are caught off guard by it, but that's the law. That’s one of the things (officers) learn: how do you deal with it? We get calls on them. The First and Second Amendments are important parts of our country and the Constitution.

During the recession, you faced a police union seeking benefits for officers and elected officials trying to cut their budgets. Did that make the job more political?

Whenever (a sustained economic downturn occurs) it brings a lot of tension in government, because everybody's doing their best to keep what it is they have knowing full well the revenues aren't there.

After that, people have asked me if certain politicians dislike you and vice versa. Do you feel that way?

This is not personal. I think it's a mistake when people make things personal. Some of the advantages I have maybe over some others is, I’ve had to deal with significant conflict in my career and move on. You get calls for service and you’ve got to be that independent third party. You can’t be taking sides. It's things like that I’ve promoted within the organization. You can't have an us-against-them mentality.

How did the June 8 shootings affect you?

That’s difficult to answer because a number of these things I’ve learned are very personal. I know I have a group of officers that each and every day are being placed in harm's way. And I was reminded of just how dangerous it is. But then I'm reminded of just how quality an organization that I'm part of, that they would bring a situation like that to a close, and always rally around to not just cops but to citizens, and provide a level of comfort to this community.

After all this, are you still happy you were sheriff?

Oh, I like it. It’s a great job. When you work around people who you have a lot of respect for, it makes work fun.

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