Homicide rate up 50 percent in Las Vegas in first quarter of 2013

Four bloody days in 2013 fueled a 50 percent increase in homicides during the first quarter of the year, a Las Vegas police official said.

There were 27 slayings through March 27, up from 18 slayings through the same period in 2012.

The uptick concerns Capt. Chris Jones, head of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Robbery/Homicide Bureau.

“What’s really pushing our numbers up this year are the events that resulted in multiple deaths,” Jones said last week . “We have four events that accounted for 10 victims.”

On Jan. 8, three men and a woman broke into a south valley apartment with the intent to steal, police said. Gunshots were fired during the home invasion that left two men dead.

On Jan. 29, a 54-year-old man fatally shot his wife and her two adult children at their north valley home in a murder-suicide, police said.

On Feb. 3, a 57-year-old man, who only hours earlier had physically threatened his ex-girlfriend, kicked in her apartment door on South Paradise Road and fatally shot her and her boyfriend, police said.

On Feb. 21, a boastful pimp and an aspiring rapper had a pre-dawn dispute at the valet of the Aria resort.

When the two men crossed paths minutes later on Las Vegas Boulevard, each behind the wheel of a luxury vehicle, several gunshots were fired from a Range Rover at the driver of a Maserati.

The shooting caused a domino-effect fiery crash, with the Maserati colliding with a taxi that exploded.

The cabby and his passenger, a female tourist from Washington, were killed. The driver of the Maserati died from a gunshot wound to his chest.

The triple homicide on the iconic Las Vegas Strip garnered national headlines.

Other than those four days of carnage in 2013, Jones said investigators can’t point to increases in specific homicide categories, such as domestic, drug-related or gang.

However, 15 of the 27 homicides up to March 27 were the results of “disputes,” or an argument between two or more parties that results in a killing. There were only five dispute homicides through late March in 2012, Jones said.

He added that because of Police Department budget cuts and hiring freezes, fewer officers are patrolling streets. Their presence in neighborhoods acts as a deterrent.

“The first defense in those disputes is the patrol force,” Jones said.

Las Vegas police face a $46 million budget deficit. In recent years, Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie has used reserve funds to cover the shortfall. He has also cut about 500 police and civilian positions.

Department spokeswoman Laura Meltzer said no matter how much police push preventative measures, people will continue to kill each other.

“You won’t be able to prevent all of them,” she said.

Bill Sousa, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas criminal justice professor, said that while the spike in homicide figures is concerning, it’s difficult to glean much from just three months of data because the sample size is too small.

Sousa also said homicides are difficult to prevent because they often involve impulsive decisions.

“Just because they’ve had a bad few months, I don’t know if that’s indicative that the problem will continue to go up,” Sousa said. “Homicides are a quirky thing.”

Although this year’s homicide numbers have perturbed him, Jones points to some of his bureau’s successes, specifically, the high number of arrests his 24 homicide detectives have made.

In 2012, detectives made arrests in 78 percent of homicide cases. As of late March, detectives have made arrests in 81 percent of their cases this year, Jones said. He gave the credit to detectives.

“They work tirelessly,” Jones said.

There are no outstanding suspects in the deaths of the 10 victims in four days of multiple homicides.

Police arrested six men and one woman in those cases. That includes the man who shot his family and then turned the gun on himself. He died days after the shooting, police said.

Despite this year’s challenges, Jones is focused on reducing the number of homicides from the total for 2012, when the department saw only 84, a record low in recent history.

Sousa said homicides can happen in clusters followed by lulls, and because of that, the recent occurrence of frequent slayings might slow.

“There is no reason to say why they (Las Vegas police) can’t wind up with (homicide) numbers even lower than last year,” he said.

Jones said his agency will continue to utilize certain initiatives to combat homicides.

In 2009, police introduced a “lethality assessment program” aimed at identifying people at high risk for being killed by their partner.

Officers were required to ask abuse victims a series of questions, including whether their abuser had ever used a weapon, left threatening messages, stalked or choked them.

Choking is a particular precursor for a homicide, police say. A 2009 law increased choking from a misdemeanor to a felony.

If police feel abuse victims are at high risk for being murdered by their partner, an officer will encourage them to visit a domestic-violence shelter as well as conduct follow-ups with them.

Police also have emphasized community-orientated initiatives, such as the Safe Village program of West Las Vegas begun in 2006. The initiative focuses on bringing police and community and religious leaders together to educate youth and prevent retaliations after shootings. The program model has been used by other neighborhoods.

Jones said police will continue to work to prevent homicides while detectives tackle the cases that come across their desks.

“Our goal each year is to reduce not just homicides, but crime in general,” he said. “We have a vision to be the safest community in America.”

Contact reporter Antonio Planas at aplanas@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4638.

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