At the corner of Fremont and 15th Street, a Las Vegas police camera, powerful enough to scan two dozen locations and pinpoint a license plate from six blocks away, watches the Saturday evening activity. It records the groups of young men patrolling Fremont—back and forth, forth and back—the scantily clad women staring down motorists and the touristy-looking folks who may have wandered a bit too far.
For years this notoriously troublesome intersection, with its motels doubling as illicit bordellos and bases for drug-dealing operations, has bedeviled law enforcement. Thus, the cameras. Electronic eyes can catch things human eyes can’t.
Maybe it’s working. Through the first seven months of 2008, violent crime is down here in year-over-year comparisons—homicides have dropped 50 percent; gun crime has fallen 17 percent. The only increase has been in sexual assaults, up 3 percent.
Given the chance to take credit for the Valley’s decreased dangerousness, our image-conscious police department, always eager for positive press, does just the opposite.
“In tough economic times, crime generally goes up, things like domestic violence especially,” Metro spokesman Bill Cassell says. “But it’s not going up, and we don’t have any idea why.”
Cassell sounds like Lt. Lew Roberts did in a December Review-Journal story on declining violent-crime rates. Last year marked the lowest homicide tally since 2000. “I can’t point to any one thing as to why they’re [homicides] down this year. I just can’t. I can’t figure it out.”
- Beyond the Weekly
- As economy drops off, so do robberies (Las Vegas Sun, 8/13/08)
(Just when we thought Metro had gone all humble, Sheriff Doug Gillespie recently told Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith that the hundreds of cops approved with a quarter-cent sales tax in 2005 are making a difference.)
But something else might be at play. Could our declining crime rate be tied to our nation-leading foreclosure crisis? It’s a theory that’s been floated elsewhere to explain similar crime stats.
Minneapolis activists claim foreclosures have helped rid some of that city’s toughest neighborhoods of their worst residents. Nearly 300 foreclosed homes in North Minneapolis’ Jordan neighborhood have changed the area’s tenor.
“You could go out and look around and not see folks you were used to seeing. Along with the vacant homes, it was an indicator that families have moved on,” Jerry Moore, director of the Jordan Area Community Council, told Minneapolis City Pages.
Dallas Drake, the Minneapolis co-founder of the Center for Homicide Research, credits foreclosures with a precipitous year-over-year drop (301 incidents) in crime in the typically violent Jordan and Hawthorne neighborhoods. “While it’s just a hypothesis,” he told City Pages, “I’m pretty certain.”
Last year, Geoff Smith of the Woodstock Institute in Chicago and Dan Immergluck of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta released a foreclosure study of Chicago that found that for every one-percentage point increase in the foreclosure rate, neighborhood violent crime rose 2.33 percent. Smith says the results fit with the prevailing theories about foreclosures: that vacant properties become magnets for vagrants, gangs and drug users. “But every market is different,” he says.
For instance, Las Vegas attracted a gaggle of speculative investors who bought houses, held them for a few months, then sold them for profit, Smith says. As the market cooled, investors scrambled to find tenants, often accepting those on government assistance like Section 8 housing vouchers. Several recent stories tie higher crime in suburban areas to the influx of Section 8 tenants.
“I would be cautious of tying foreclosure, crime and people on Section 8 assistance,” says Smith, adding, “Honestly I’ve never heard about foreclosures reducing crime.”
Several local real-estate experts agree there’s little empirical data to correlate rising foreclosure rates and declining crime, but Cassell won’t dismiss it, because, well, he’s running out of explanations. “Stranger things have happened.”
There is some anecdotal evidence, at least. It comes in a story told by a man who prefers anonymity for himself and for his neighborhood, a once-neat-looking subdivision built 15 years ago near Alexander and Revere in North Las Vegas. His next-door neighbor, a construction worker, was foreclosed upon. But he wasn’t the problem; his daughter and her friends were, partying when he was at work, doing drugs in the backyard, playing loud music, vandalizing cars—generally making his life hell. When they moved, he says, things instantly improved.
North Las Vegas police spokesman Mark Hoyt says the correlation between foreclosures and reduced crime is an interesting hypothesis, nothing more. “It’s hard to tell if the foreclosure crisis has anything to do with it unless we interview every person arrested for a property crime and ask them if their home went into foreclosure and that’s why they did what they did.”