Sheriff credits the force: More officers on the street means less crime in Vegas

You almost want to be the sheriff on days like this.


Maybe even Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie, who in my mind ranks among of the most reluctant elected officials ever to have his name appear on a ballot, will allow himself to crack a smile today.


It's not every day the Uniform Crime Report Index for Las Vegas looks like the stock page after the market crashes. Here's a sample of the statistics:


- Murder and non-negligent manslaughter from January to June 2008: down 33 percent from the same time the past year.


- Auto theft: down 35 percent.


- Burglary: down 9 percent.


- Crime overall: down 15 percent.


Crime in Las Vegas has dropped faster than my 401(k).


Why?


The population has increased 5 percent in the past year, according to state demographic projections.


Although crime rates have been trending downward the past five years, the theory is that crime is supposed to rise when the economy falters. A jump in unemployment means a leap in robberies and property crimes.


That hasn't happened.


Crimes against people, such as murder and aggravated assault, are down 7 percent. Crimes against property have decreased 17 percent. Only forcible rape is up, according to the UCR. It's increased 4 percent.


All things considered, it's a good day to be sheriff.


When I heard about the official numbers, I was immediately confounded. While I realize I'm easily confounded, all these years I've adhered to that bad economy/increased crime theory.


So I asked Sheriff Gillespie his opinion of the new statistics. He isn't popping any champagne corks and knows a terrible economy eventually can spell trouble for the lawful community, but I think he allowed himself a smile.


"We've got more police officers available to us than we did a few years ago," Gillespie said. "That's afforded us to be more pro-active."


More uniformed cops on the street translates into increased visibility, traffic stops and citizen contacts. It also means more scrutiny of traditionally high-crime neighborhoods, where small-time thieves and the street element prey on poor and working-class families.


"By infusing some of our extra personnel, we're seeing the reduction in crime primarily in areas we've seen a lot of crime over the years," Gillespie said.

In other areas of the UCR, increased sophistication has translated into superior results. Take the bait car program, which targets auto thieves.


Thanks to those efforts, Southern Nevada is no longer challenging for the dubious title of hot-car capital of the country.


It also helps that Metro officers are taking auto theft reports, rather than relying on citizens to show up at a substation and fill out the paperwork.


"They're seeing it, hearing it and touching it," Gillespie said. "I think that's important."

It's been a bone of contention with auto crime victims who in past years were shocked to find police weren't rolling to their aid after a car theft.


It also helps that District Attorney David Roger has made a point of hammering prolific car thieves.


For too long car theft, which can have an enormous effect on the lives of working people, has been relegated to second-tier criminal status.


And, Gillespie noted, there's nothing like catching a professional car thief with a bait car, which is wired for audio and video.


"That's just great to present to a jury, if in fact some suspect wants to take it that far," the sheriff said.


For the record, Gillespie said he sees no correlation between any federal roundups of illegal immigrants and a decrease in criminal activity.


The evidence just isn't there to support it.


He contends it's the increased officer presence that has reduced crime despite the foundering economy.


It's one reason he said he would continue to work toward the approval of the second half of the "more cops" measure, which sets aside a quarter-cent from the sales tax to hire officers. Even in tough times, the plan enjoys broad voter approval, according to a recent Magellan Research poll.


"We've done a lot of good work, and I think the cops out there should get the credit for it," Gillespie said. "We've got some tough challenges ahead of us with the economy the way it is."


For Southern Nevada's top cop, some days are easier than others.


- John L. Smith's column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal's Opinion page. E-mail him at smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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