With growth in the Valley slowing and crime also down, now wouldn’t seem to be the time to put more police officers on the streets. But Metro may be seeking as many as 400 officers a year over the next nine years. The question is not only whether we need all that protection, but also whether the money will be there to pay for it.
For years, growth in the Valley had been outpacing the city and county’s ability to hire police officers. The department found that its requests for more officers weren’t being met. (The department replaces 100 or so officers a year through attrition; those hirings are handled through the normal budget.)
In 2004 the department sponsored a ballot initiative to seek a half-cent sales-tax increase—a way to share the cost of hiring new officers among both residents and visitors. The goal? Twelve hundred new cops, which the department hopes would achieve a ratio of two officers per thousand people in the service population. “You’re either proactive on it, or you’re reactive, and when you’re reactive you’re behind,” says Metro Sgt. David Orr.
Voters passed the so-called More Cops Initiative in 2004; when it went to Carson City for approval, the legislature split the increase in half—authorizing a quarter-cent tax that will expire next year, and—potentially—another quarter-cent increase in 2009. Why the hesitation on the part of the legislature? “There were a lot of concerns,” says Tom Roberts of Metro’s Bureau of Intergovernmental Services. “They wanted assurances we would put people in uniforms in the neighborhoods.”
“Our main goal is to put officers on the street in uniform in a marked police car,” Orr echoes. If manpower is sufficient in patrol, he continues, “then you can beef up in other areas [detectives], but the priority is more officers on the street.”
There are 2,650 officers on Metro’s force, and another 787 corrections officers. Of the commissioned officers, 438 have been hired and funded by the More Cops Initiative. To date the fund has generated $169 million in revenue for Metro.
To facilitate the training of more officers, Metro has reconfigured its training academies. In years past, large academies with a hundred or more recruits were run a few times a year. Now smaller academies of 40 or so recruits begin every five weeks. Still, it takes time to get these officers on the street. “If we hire someone today, they won’t finish their formal training for one year,” says Orr. “That means when they get out they’re a rookie on the street; the learning curve is still there.” It may take three to five years for officers to really be fully competent.
Despite the economic downturn and the acute absence of construction in a town still trying to dispose of a huge inventory of housing, the city continues to grow modestly.
Metro claims the population in its service area—including Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County—increased 5 percent this year, a figure based on an increase in residential units. But the Clark County Department of Comprehensive Planning, working from the belief that occupancy is down, claims the population actually dipped a hair this year, and is expected to climb only a percentage point or two into next year.
Through 2008, crime has dropped in Clark County. Murders are down 15 percent over last year; robberies are down 12 percent; aggravated assaults are down 7 percent; burglaries 8 percent; larcenies 9 percent and auto theft 35 percent. Only forcible rape has seen an increase over last year, up 3 percent. Nevertheless, these figures are beginning to bottom out, Roberts says, which suggests they may threaten to increase. “If our economy is hurting now, throw some rising crime on it,” says Roberts. “With the people we’ve been able to hire we’ve been able to do some neat things.” Like putting more cops in schools and assigning more cops to work on auto theft.
The fund will support the income of up to 1,200 officers over 30 years—but this is well short of talk of the massive staffing plans over the next nine years. The department must return to the legislature next year to seek approval for the next quarter-cent tax. “I don’t know that it’s going to be a cakewalk,” says Roberts. “You’re right. It is tough times. We were told to come back, and that’s what we’re doing. Tough to ask people to increase a sales tax when times are tough.”
But he believes Metro can keep up as people continue to come to town. “We believe that we’re on track and we’ll be able to handle it, as long as we can keep the police ration at or near 2.0 [officers per thousand residents], we believe we can keep crime down,” says Roberts.