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Many Nevada officials were sworn in yesterday including the Governor, a Supreme Court chief justice, and a Las Vegas City Councilwoman. They all face unique challenges but none face the intense pressure of public safety like the city's new Sherriff Bill Young. KNPR's Ky Plaskon talks to the city's former sheriff about what it's like to do the job for three decades.
Jerry Keller spent his life solving problems . . . one after another . . . problem after problem. First as a school science teacher iin the 1960's. At 22 he decided to solve progressively more serious problems in Las Vegas, the kind that sometimes require a gun.
It was a unique experience, I was a school teacher and to join the county sherrifs department and apply my science background in a crime lab I had to go through the academy and become a police officer, a deputy sheriff if you will at the County Sheriffs office and I found I loved it and I have every single day all of this 33 1/2 years that I have come to work, I have looked forward to coming to work, I love being a cop and whatever capacity I have had.
His capacity evolved much like the city with bigger and bigger responsibilities. He started in 1969. Over the years he was a street cop, crime lab investigator, SWATT officer, captain of north and south patrols and finally elected County Sheriff in 1993. Now the city is four times bigger than when he first put down his science books to become a cop.
He says there is a lessening mob influence now, and citizens are 40 percent less likely to be the victim of a violent crime making this city one of the 10 safest big cities in America. He's seen a lot of crime and, at the edge of retirement, he doesn't like to talk about it much.
Every crime is weird. My goal for 33 years has been to eliminate crime in my community and I have not quite made it. But I have made a significant difference. Criminals are different people, no one can think like them, profilers come close, but most of us don't have any concept of how criminals think and you run into a variety of unique crimes, we used to categorize them as unique of the week, which one was the weirdest that week and then we went on and did the next crime scene or the next investigation.
Try getting in to the mind of a criminal who recently decided to run from an officer without a clear reason. The driver crashed in an ensuing high-speed chase . . . then a foot chase, until the suspect turned on the officer and shot him 6 times. The suspect fled the dying officer and tried to shoot more pursuing officers. Officer Enrique Hernandez almost died, but pulled through with a lot of community support.
"I didn't know there was that kind of support throughout the police community as well as just average people coming up and donating blood and from what I hear they had to turn people away there were so many people."
Keller explains why officers like Hernandez keep doing what they are doing.
"When you work a homicide case or you work a sexual assault case, you see the devastation in the victim's eyes that pain is what keeps the cops going to catch the suspect but it is not a particular event, sometimes a particular event will affect someone, we have a police employees assistance program because all cops have feelings, they wouldn't be worth a darn if they didn't."
For years Keller and his staff have discussed incidents like this at what he calls the "Who Shot Who" meeting. When a reporter's in the room, the staff is tight lipped.
(Sound of meeting) "So what do you have Dick? . . . Not a thing . . . Ha ha ha ha ha"
At this meeting staff reports 6 robberies in just two days, an officer involved wreck and an incident where youth threw a molitov cocktail. They'll decide what to do about those incidents after I leave.
"I'll let you get back to your serious business . . . thank you . . . good luck."
All though Keller says Las Vegas is safer for the average citizen today, it's clear that problems here have evolved too. He says there are a lot of gangs, prison mafia, drugs, and above all, too much traffic.
There were 40-thousand car wrecks here last year.
Over the past three decades, Nevada has experienced the fourth largest increase in accidents in the nation. But according to 2001 U-S department of transportation crash data, fatal accident rates in Nevada are right on par with the national average. Still, Keller says the amount of vehicles coming here poses a serious problem for the future. He estimates there are 4-thousand 5-hundred more cars are on county roads every month. He identifies narcotics and club drugs as the second most serious problem.
To deal with such problems and keep up with population growth Keller estimates the force needs to hire 400 new officers. Right now the city has one less officer per 1,000 people than the national average. Meet the current goal is another challenge considering that of every 300 trained, experienced officers that apply for jobs here, only 5 actually make it through the Las Vegas police department's character standards.
But these problems aren't Keller's anymore than they are problems of the average citizen. Yesterday he stood by quietly and smiled behind a crowd of reporters who focused their attention on a new Sheriff . . . Bill Young as he took his oath of office.
"Can you please raise your right hand and repeat after me, I Bill Young . . . I Bill Young Do solemnly swear . . . Do solemnly swear . . ."
Young has the same agenda as Keller of traffic and hiring officers and he's got a few more tasks tacked on.
"Crime has changed significantly in the past two three years. Identity theft and fraud is really coming to the forefront in this community, it is one of the fastest crime categories that we have. Gang violence is something that is really concerning to me."
Young says he hopes to work closer as a team with prosecutors to build cases against violent gangs. He has a single-stone approach to solving the problem of traffic and demand for officers - hire more traffic officers.
Meanwhile, as of yesterday, the weathered problem solver, Sheriff Jerry Keller is retired, peacefully tying fishing flies, working in his wood shop and spending more time with his grandchildren.
"I don't have any plans right now for full time work. I am just looking forward to easing out of this job and experiencing the change in our lives and looking through new glasses to see what it is all about."
His wife is retiring with him.
For KNPR, I'm Ky Plaskon.