Report: Las Vegas police wiretapping near the nation’s top

Las Vegas authorities use electronic wiretaps more than almost every other police agency in the country, according to a new report.

Clark County judges approved 187 wiretaps on phones in 2013, and police executed 178, according to the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts. All of the wiretaps were for drug investigations.

That’s a lot of wiretapping, especially when you factor the county’s population, compared to metro areas at least four times larger. Los Angeles County judges approved 148 wiretaps last year. New York City’s special narcotics bureau had 138 wiretaps approved.

Pew Research Center analyzed the data and determined — based on population — that the Silver State leads the nation with 38 phone wiretaps per 500,000 people in 2013.

No other state saw more than 12 wiretaps per 500,000 people, according to the nonpartisan think tank.

So why are Nevada’s numbers so high, especially compared to larger agencies policing much larger populations? Police say it’s because wiretapping works.

“It’s because we’re damn good,” said Kent Bitsko, director of Nevada’s federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program.

Bitsko said wiretapping phones is the only way to effectively police the drug cartels. Detectives — usually working in task forces consisting of federal and local officers — need wiretaps to identify the heads of the organizations.

Although there were 187 wiretaps approved by Clark County judges, the number is deceiving, he said.

Many wiretaps target the same criminals with different phone numbers, Bitsko said. When a suspect tosses away a cellphone, detectives need a new warrant.

“When they drop their phones we can go to six (wiretaps) on one organization,” he said.

Two federally funded prosecutors in the Clark County District Attorney’s office work full time on the drug cases, which is why detectives typically get warrants from county judges, Bitsko said. Federal judges across Nevada only approved 26 wiretaps, and police only executed one, the data showed.

“I’m sure they’re great, too, in New York City or L.A.,” he said. “But we have two of the best DA’s working this and really, really great detectives that work their butts off.”

Bitsko said Clark County has been near the top of the wiretapping list for several years. If anything, local authorities have scaled back: There were 239 drug wiretaps approved in 2012, and one granted in a kidnapping case.

Washoe County judges granted two wiretaps that year, and both were for drug cases.

Clark County was Nevada’s only county to grant a wiretapping last year, the report said, and the county’s emphasis on drug cases followed a national trend. Nearly 90 percent of the nation’s wiretaps were granted for drug investigations.

Not everyone is convinced that increased wiretapping will keep us safer, however.

Allen Lichtenstein, Nevada’s general counsel for the ACLU, said the report “raises a lot more questions than it answers.”

Lichtenstein said it’s not clear whether police are targeting major drug cartels, or if they’re targeting low-level criminals.

“Are they dealing with the average, run-of-the-mill drug user?” he asked. “Is this a real crackdown on crime, or are (police) spending our money trying to fight a war on drugs on the user level?”

Nevada had about 6 percent of the country’s total wiretappings, tying with Florida for third place. California had 26 percent of the total wiretappings; New York was second with about 12 percent, according to the Pew Center.

The proportion of wiretaps granted in Clark County doesn’t match the population, Lichtenstein said.

He questioned whether county judges were scrutinizing the requests from police and prosecutors.

“It’s always the question whether judges, for wiretaps or search warrants, are just signing without really paying attention,” he said.

But Bitsko said the stats back him.

He said local authorities arrested suspects from 55 criminal organizations last year, and according to the U.S. Courts report, Nevada’s 78 drug convictions via wiretapping last year led the nation.

With about 2 million residents, Clark County’s wiretapping numbers were high.

But they paled in comparison to similarly sized Riverside County in California, which reported 341 wiretappings — 338 of which were drug cases.

Bitsko said that’s simply how you investigate drug cartels.

“If people are being critical of (wiretapping), they don’t want us to work narcotics,” he said.

Contact reporter Mike Blasky at mblasky@reviewjournal.com. Follow @blasky on Twitter.