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FBI director expresses concern over murder increase in US cities, including Las Vegas

The spike in violent crimes affecting the valley has caught the attention of FBI Director James B. Comey.

He told Washington, D.C., reporters on Wednesday that he was concerned about a wave of homicides in several U.S. cities and specifically mentioned Las Vegas in remarks that were reported by both Politico and The New York Times.

“From the Las Vegas Strip, you can’t tell that 60 people have been murdered in Las Vegas this year. From the Miracle Mile in Chicago, you can’t hear the sounds of gunshots that have killed over 200 people this year,” he said.

Comey’s comments point to a growing concern in many cities experiencing a rise in homicides. As of Thursday, the Metropolitan Police Department had 65 homicides in its jurisdiction in 2016. When statistics from North Las Vegas and Henderson are added in, that number rises to 75.

bar chart of increase in homicides

The FBI director’s remarks were based, in part, on a new report issued by the Major Cities Chiefs Association. The association’s violent crime survey included data from the first quarter of 2016 from 63 big-city police departments.

In a copy obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, 31 of those cities show an increase in homicides over the same period in 2015, with Las Vegas and Chicago having some of the most significant increases.

Las Vegas ranked third, below Chicago and Dallas, for an increase in the actual number of killings over the same period last year. When looking at the percentage change in homicides, however, Las Vegas ranks above both of those cities with an 81.8 percent increase from the first three months of 2015.

The 63 agencies combined experienced a 9 percent increase in homicides and a 21 percent increase in nonfatal shootings. Other cities with dramatic increases in homicides include Los Angeles; Memphis, Tennessee; and Jacksonville, Florida.

Comey told reporters that while he didn’t have figures to point to, he thinks there may be a connection between increased violence and what is often called the “Ferguson effect” or the “YouTube effect.” That’s the idea that officers are policing certain neighborhoods, especially those with large minority populations, less aggressively than in the past, because they’re afraid of encounters being filmed and going viral on the Internet and making officers vulnerable to public criticism.

“There’s a perception that police are less likely to do the marginal additional policing that suppresses crime, the getting out of your car at two in the morning and saying to a group of guys, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’” the FBI director told reporters

Metro has denied that there has been a “YouTube effect” on its police work.

“We do not see a trend in de-policing in our department,” said officer Jesse Roybal, a department spokesman. Rather, he said, the department is being more active in troubled areas.

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo has his own ideas about what is behind the valley’s spike in violent crime. Recently, he said violence is in on the rise in the valley because of an influx of gang members from Southern California and recent depopulation of U.S. prisons, especially in California.

Roybal said the department also thinks insufficient staffing is a contributing factor. The department wants to increase its officer-to-population ratio, currently about 1.7 officers for every 1,000 residents, to two officers for every 1,000 residents.

During his remarks Wednesday, Comey told reporters there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

“Something is happening,” he said. “A whole lot more people are dying this year than last year, and last year than the year before, and I don’t know why for sure.”

Law enforcement leaders from across the nation, including from Metro, are gathering in New York City later this month for a joint meeting with the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Police Executive Research Forum to examine the issue.

Contact Wesley Juhl at wjuhl@reviewjournal.com and 702-383-0391. Find @WesJuhl on Twitter.

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