Updated December 10, 2021 - 1:53 pm
A little more than a year ago on the Las Vegas Strip, a string of violent crimes brought unwanted headlines to a tourist corridor emerging from an unprecedented economic shutdown.
Despite police efforts, sporadic acts of violence on the Strip have persisted through 2021 as millions of visitors returned.
Last year, there was a shooting in the valet of the Aria, gunfire on the casino floor of the MGM Grand, a stabbing in The Venetian, a shooting in front of Paris Las Vegas, a shooting in front of the Miracle Mile Shops, and a melee in Encore at Wynn Las Vegas.
“We had some unique crime waves that were hitting Las Vegas and, quite frankly, they were happening all over the country,” said Metropolitan Police Department Capt. Dori Koren, who oversees the convention center area command that includes the Strip. “Just like in any other major city, we started seeing increases in certain crimes. We’ve been able to deal with it and get it under control. It kind of resurfaced again this past year, and I’m proud to say we’ve made a lot of progress in dealing with it.”
Police responded to the crime wave by carrying out Operation Persistent Pressure, using a heavy officer presence on the Strip to combat a rise in aggravated assaults. This year they have made 52,000 stops of both pedestrians and vehicles across the convention center area command, confiscating more than 500 guns and making more than 9,000 arrests, Koren said.
In January, a shooting critically injured a man in front of The Venetian. In March, a Wynn Las Vegas employee shot and killed a security guard before killing himself on the property. In August a man was shot and killed at a motel in the 3900 block of Las Vegas Boulevard South. On Sept. 22, a shooting critically injured a man in the 3700 block of Las Vegas Boulevard South. And, on Nov. 7, a man was shot and paralyzed in an early morning shooting at Flamingo Road and Las Vegas Boulevard.
“I can’t say it’s perfect, but we are always striving to be perfect,” Koren said. “Every single crime, every single victim to us is a priority. This is not a zero sum game. It is not like crime disappears to zero. We are constantly trying to reduce it. But we are far better off than we were.”
In the convention center area command, which also includes sizable areas east and west of the Strip, the number of aggravated assaults continued to rise in 2021. As of Nov. 26 there were 426 aggravated assaults, up from 412 in 2020, representing a 3.4 percent increase. Authorities consider this a success given the increased number of visitors to the Strip in 2021, along with the fact that last year, as the Strip reopened, police were coping with a 29 percent increase in the same type of assaults.
Murders, meanwhile, were up 58 percent in all of Metro’s jurisdiction, mimicking a national trend in rising homicide rates across the country. Murders also spiked in the convention center area to 11 in 2021, up from 1 in 2020, although the majority of those homicides occurred off the Strip.
“A lot of our violent crime, it is not happening on the Strip where tourists are going to dinner,” Koren said. “It is happening on the outskirts, maybe a little east, maybe a little west, pockets of residential areas.”
Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo cautioned against comparing 2021 crime statistics with 2020, given that the Strip and much of the Las Vegas economy were closed for months. In all of Metro’s jurisdictions, violent crimes such as murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assaults were cumulatively down nearly 12 percent in 2021 compared with the year prior, while violent crime increased 4.3 percent in the convention center area command.
Property crimes on the rise
“Significant increase in motor vehicle theft to the tune of 20-plus percent,” Lombardo said. “Larcenies, an increase of 8 percent. That is troublesome and that is part and parcel to supply chain issues and pieces and parts in and out of stolen vehicles, stealing vehicles for transportation because of the unavailability of new cars and used cars. We know that, we are aware of that, and we are dedicating resources to address it.”
Lombardo said a trend of people stealing catalytic converters from vehicles and then reselling them on the black market also has played a role in the rising property crime numbers.
“The catalytic converter issue — it hasn’t waned,” Lombardo said. “We’ve taken a significant number of individuals into custody as a result of that particular crime. People are taking advantage of the shortage of parts and pieces.”
In the convention center area command, property crimes rose by 49 percent in 2021 compared with 2020, as motor vehicle thefts were up almost 75 percent, burglaries were up 50 percent and larcenies were up 46 percent. Koren, however, said the numbers were inflated against the backdrop of the economic shutdown in 2020.
”When you compare it to 2019 we are doing pretty well when it comes to burglaries and larcenies,” Koren said. “Auto thefts, though, is a problem. We recognize it, and we’ve made it a priority. We are seeing more vehicles being stolen regardless of what year you compare it to.”
A delicate balance for tourism
Christopher Herrmann, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said many major metropolitan areas in the United States are struggling with rising crime.
“It’s certainly not a good picture,” Herrmann said. “We had a really significant increase in crime in 2020, and a lot of us expected that crime to go back down once society started to reopen again, people went back to work and students went back to school. The economy got on better grounds, but crime has remained elevated.”
Anecdotal evidence indicates that some of the crime is related to the COVID-19 pandemic and related mental health stress, Herrmann said. That, however, doesn’t explain all of it.
Peter Tarlow is president of the World Tourism Network and a global expert on tourism safety. He said he believes Las Vegas does an excellent job in protecting tourists on the Strip, and that no city is immune to acts of violence in the aftermath of the pandemic.
An important aspect of tourism safety, he said, is preventing major episodes of crime, which in turn protects the city’s reputation. He believes part of the rise in crime in the United States is due to criminal justice system reforms and an unwillingness by prosecutors to be tough on crime.
“Last week I was in Israel and one of the questions I was asked was: ‘Is it safe to go to the United States?’” Tarlow said. “Most Americans kind of laugh at that, but they (foreign tourists) read about the car ramming at a Christmas parade, people being stabbed in the New York City subway. Crime statistics are through the roof in the United States. If you are in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, do you want to go to the United States for tourism?”
The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Dr. Miriam Adelson, the majority shareholder of Las Vegas Sands Corp., which operates The Venetian.