Las Vegas crime figures show downward trend

The number of homicides and sexual assaults rose slightly in Las Vegas last year, but every other crime category within the Metropolitan Police Department’s jurisdiction fell, in some cases dramatically.

Automobile thefts dropped by 30 percent last year and traffic fatalities by 15 percent, improvements Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie attributed to targeted efforts.

The drop in crime came despite one of the sharpest economic declines in Southern Nevada’s history, as unemployment rose to record levels and growth slowed to a crawl in the second half of the year.

“Some indicators that are there tell us that some of these things that we’re doing, they’re working,” Gillespie said.

Auto thefts, once a reliable black mark for the city in national comparisons, decreased for the third year in a row. Nearly 11,500 cars were stolen in the department’s jurisdiction last year, down from an all-time high of nearly 20,000 in 2005, according to preliminary statistics from the department.

Robberies also fell, by about 11 percent last year, and burglaries experienced a slight decrease.

Las Vegas joined other cities in experiencing crime drops. Baltimore saw the fewest homicides in two decades, according to news reports, and the Los Angeles Police Department saw crime decreases in nearly every category.

A poor economy, contrary to the belief that it can increase crime, might instead have been a factor in driving it down, said University of Nevada, Las Vegas assistant professor Bill Sousa.

Criminologists have theorized that when the economy is good for everyone, it’s good for criminals, too, he said. And when it’s bad, it’s bad for everyone.

“It’s sort of intuitive that if one thing must go up, the other thing must go down,” Sousa said. “But that’s not necessarily the case.”

Because more people are unemployed or watching their wallets, they’re more likely to spend free time at home, making them less appealing targets for burglars.

But Sousa said the economy might be having an effect on domestic violence, which can be driven by more stressful home situations.

Homicides last year were buoyed by a spike in domestic violence-related slayings. Those crimes made up more than a third of all homicides — more than gang- or dispute-driven killings, according to the department’s statistics.

Gillespie said his department started targeting that trend, and late last year the department’s Crimes Against Youth and Family Bureau created a new task force designed to prevent domestic violence killings.

Detectives are going after repeat domestic violence offenders and working with victims on getting them help, Capt. Vincent Cannito said.

That task force coincides with a pilot program to be rolled out this month where officers who respond to domestic violence calls will contact local shelters depending on how the victim responds to a questionnaire.

“We’re optimistic that we’re going to be able to identify those most at risk and provide them an avenue for assistance,” Cannito said.

Gillespie praised the efforts of his civilian and law enforcement members of the department, who he said have come up with innovative ways to prevent crimes.

He attributed the drop in fatal accidents to ideas, born in group brainstorming sessions, such as blanketing freeways with patrol officers during morning commutes. He said the tactic has helped prevent motorists from speeding not just on the freeway, but once they get off the freeway.

The quarter-cent sales-tax increase for more officers has also let the department assign more patrol officers to high-crime areas, such as the neighborhood west of the Boulevard Mall, the lower Fremont Street corridor and the historic West Las Vegas neighborhood.

“I’ll guarantee you today, if you drive down there you’ll see a black and white. You’ll see somebody on a bicycle wearing a cop uniform,” Gillespie said. “Three to four years ago you wouldn’t necessarily have seen that as much on a regular basis.”

The drastic drop in auto thefts is a bright point for the department, which for years watched its numbers skyrocket along with the valley’s booming population.

Lt. Bob DuVall’s VIPER unit, a focused auto theft task force that includes detectives from the North Las Vegas and Henderson police departments, has helped bring the numbers down.

The unit added more bait cars to its fleet last year, targeted chop-shops and received high-tech cameras that can quickly scan license plates in crowded places, such as parking garages, for stolen cars.

During the holiday season, the unit also deployed psychological techniques against would-be thieves, in the form of signs announcing that bait cars were in use at parking lots in the Boulevard Mall, Meadows Mall and Las Vegas Premium Outlets. Whether the cars were actually in use, only the police know, but only one car was stolen from the lots while the signs were up, DuVall said.

Review-Journal writer Antonio Planas contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at lmower@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440.

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