Las Vegas police downsizes again, slashes proactive programs


They're cops dedicated to preventing crime in the valley.

But now they're a luxury the Metropolitan Police Department can't afford.

About 26 officers from two of the department's most proactive programs - DARE and its saturation team - were reassigned to patrol last week after Sheriff Doug Gillespie deemed there was a shortage of officers on the streets.

"We enjoyed the boom. We're paying the price now for the significant reduction in it," Gillespie said last week.

Although not the first examples of police downsizing in recent years, these cuts were perhaps the most narrow and public. Instead of clipping some leaves, the sheriff chopped a few limbs.

The reason was obvious, he said. The ratio of Las Vegas police officers per 1,000 residents has dwindled to 1.83, under the national standard of 2.0 and well below the department peak of 2.06 several years ago. The ratio is one of the lowest in the country for a metropolitan area, he said.

More cuts to nonessential programs could be coming, and more officers are likely to be shifted to patrol. Vacant positions have remained unfilled for several years, and as more officers retire, no new officers have been hired to fill the void.

Gillespie said the department has eliminated 238 positions and another 117 are vacant. A conservative estimate would mean the department is down about 250 cops from its peak years, he said.

"When you're getting down to boots on the ground, doing the job, responding to calls for service, I need those people in uniform and in black and whites," he said.

A 'CHANGE IN DOSAGE'

Most people have heard about DARE, the anti-drug, anti-gang education program taught in schools across the country.

Less familiar are the Las Vegas police saturation teams, another proactive policing initiative. The officers operate in crime-ridden neighborhoods but don't respond to regular calls for service, such as domestic violence, suicides and break-ins.

Instead, the officers saturate a neighbor­hood for an extended period of time, sometimes between 30 and 90 days, and try to clean up the streets. They might book a known dealer for jaywalking, even if he's not carrying drugs, or stop a car for rolling through a stop sign and check if anyone inside has warrants.

There are four saturation teams of 12 officers and one sergeant. Two teams are designated for homeland security and spend most of their time on the Strip, and the other two teams have worked the rest of the valley.

Under the reorganization, the officers on one of the neighborhood teams will be assigned to the Strip as full-time patrol officers. The move will also unburden patrol officers around the valley who have been spending a few shifts a month working the Strip on weekends, police said.

At least one officer with experience on the saturation team begrudgingly accepted the cuts.

"Do we prevent crime before it happens? Yes, but we can't have people waiting two hours for a call, either," said the officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We know we should be happy to have jobs."

Gillespie and Undersheriff Jim Dixon conceived the saturation team idea in 2005. By all accounts, it's been successful at reducing crime, Gillespie said.

"That's why it's not being completely eliminated," he said.

William Sousa, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has been analyzing the saturation teams for six months for a study on their effectiveness. The study will likely not be affected by the changes because at least one team remains, he said.

"It's a slight change in dosage," Sousa said.

'WHETHER WE LIKE IT OR NOT ...'

The move has angered some rank-and-file officers who believe the department has overstaffed the Strip at the expense of the rest of the valley. But some cops disagree.

Chris Collins, head of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, said the Strip should be everyone's top priority.

"Whether we like it or not, the Strip is three-fourths of the state's economy," Collins said. "Not only is Las Vegas going to suffer, the entire state is going to suffer if something bad happens on the Strip. Understand that the sheriff needs to protect the money engine."

He was more critical of the decision to eliminate DARE.

"I think it's one of the few ways we could keep kids off drugs. It's bothersome to me and bothersome to the community," he said.

But the cuts will continue until Las Vegas and Clark County, which fund about 70 percent of the Metropolitan Police Department's budget, figure out their priorities, he said.

"You still see city and county parks are being built. Why are you building parks but not funding the Police Department to the level it needs to keep citizens safe?" he asked.

Based on revenue projections for 2013, the department is facing a $46.5 million deficit on its $502.5 million projected budget.

That's the largest deficit in the department's history.

And the department won't be able to lean on its once-plentiful reserve fund, which is nearly empty after being used to plug large budget holes the past few years.

In his search for more funding, Gillespie plans to lobby the Legislature next year to enable the second quarter-cent of the More Cops sales tax that was approved in 2004.

He will also ask the local governments to spend more on police.

Gillespie said he will also continue to cut costs.

Contracts with the departments' unions are up next year, and negotiations are on the horizon.

He suspended two academies scheduled for this year because he wouldn't want to lay off a new officer he just spent more than a year training.

More downsizing is an option, although Gillespie said nothing was imminent.

"To say that I'm not looking would not be a true statement," he said.

Gillespie said he doesn't anticipate layoffs because there are 117 vacant positions he could cut. But when asked about his plan for a worst-case scenario, the sheriff paused.

"I'm not willing to go there yet," he said.

Contact reporter Mike Blasky at mblasky@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0283.

 

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