EDITORIAL: Police response plan a play for more cash

If a government agency is warning about potential service cutbacks with public safety and pocketbook ramifications, it’s a sure sign said agency is dialing up the pressure to get more tax money.

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has struggled to manage its high personnel costs throughout the economic downturn. Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie spent all of 2013 pushing for a sales tax increase to hire more officers, but he couldn’t win the support of five of the seven county commissioners on a handful of proposals.

So it comes as no surprise that, just as the County Commission prepares to again take up a sales tax plan to boost local police budgets, Las Vegas police are preparing to change the way officers respond to minor traffic accidents. Which is to say officers won’t respond to minor traffic accidents unless the force gets more manpower. And it won’t get more manpower without more money.

As reported Wednesday by the Review-Journal’s Mike Blasky, Las Vegas police are trying to manage increasing calls for service as their staffing ratio falls. Although the department used to exceed the national standard of two officers per 1,000 residents, it now has about 1.8 officers per 1,000 people.

“At this time there hasn’t been any policy changes, but we are looking at the number of areas where we may have to change our protocol,” said officer Lawrence Hadfield, a department spokesman.

The County Commission is expected to vote Jan. 21 on a new sales tax plan, Commissioner Larry Brown told the Review-Journal editorial board Thursday. Last month, Mr. Gillespie pitched a phased increase, with a 0.075 percentage-point boost in October 2014 and a 0.075 percentage-point increase in October 2015, as well as spending from a reserve fund, to hire about 100 new officers over the next two years.

Whatever tax plan comes before commissioners, its rejection almost certainly will lead to reduced traffic accident responses. And that’s a terrible idea.

The valley’s driving culture is bad enough as it is, with speeding and red-light running rampant, and turn-signal usage seemingly optional. Traffic patrols are increasingly rare, so an expensive ticket for causing an accident — even a minor fender bender — is about the only measure of accountability careless drivers can expect to face. That ticket is the gold standard for determining fault.

If police stop showing up to write that ticket, it will be up to drivers to collect information, take photographs and report the accident. Insurance companies will have to figure it out from there.

“It’s going to have a huge effect. More than any of us can fathom right now,” Robert Compan, an executive board member for the Nevada Insurance Council, told Mr. Blasky, adding that he expects an increase in fraud to result. That would quickly boost already-high insurance premiums for even the best drivers.

Besides, how can police adequately determine whether an accident is minor based on a call to a dispatcher? Is the accident still minor if no one is hurt but there’s $20,000 in property and vehicle damage? A police response also helps ensure traffic lanes are cleared in a timely fashion. Drivers who are especially determined to document fault might be disinclined to move their vehicles to the shoulder, tying up traffic in the process.

Regardless of whether the commission approves the latest sales tax plan, Las Vegas police must prioritize responses as best as they can — and stop using them as a bargaining chip.