Hollywood Recreation Center is a well-kept facility in front of a sprawling green park. Palm trees line the parking lot. Bright yellow flowers bloom from the medians. It’s situated between three schools, two churches and a fire station, and from its lot in the Sunrise Mountain foothills, the view of the Strip is breathtaking. On this Saturday morning, several families are picnicking at the park tables, and other kids gather inside the rec center for community classes.
It’s hard to imagine that just a couple of months ago, this was the site of a massive fight and shooting in which more than 50 rounds were spent and a 15-year-old boy was killed.
It was the 55th homicide of the year; since then, the number of murders in Metro’s jurisdiction has risen to 67. Recent homicides include a bludgeoned man found in the trunk of a parked car on the far south side of the Valley, a domestic double shooting in front of a daycare center on the far north side and the robbery shooting at Lee’s Discount Liquor on the southwest side.
The homicide rate has surged by more than 80 percent over this time last year. Last week, FBI director James Comey named Las Vegas and Chicago as two cities where the rates were spiking when he commented on a new report on crime nationwide. But Las Vegas and Chicago are not alone; Dallas, LA, Memphis and Jacksonville are all experiencing dramatic increases this year—after nearly two decades of decreasing violent-crime rates in the U.S. In fact, the nation’s violent-crime rate in 2014 was the lowest it had been since 1970, and the homicide rate was the lowest since 1960, according to the Federation of American Scientists.
Why, then, the sudden escalation here? There’s no easy answer. Sheriff Joe Lombardo held a news conference last month to address the issue and, while he said he’d been losing sleep over it and was doing everything he knew to do, he didn’t know why violent crimes were increasing.
But in a New York Times article, the FBI director floated this possible cause: “The viral video effect,” otherwise known as “the Ferguson effect.” Comey surmised that some officers were more reluctant to police since a string of videos showing mistreatment of citizens resulted in anti-police backlash. That theory was dismissed by many police leaders, including Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, the organization that compiled the recent nationwide crime stats. He told the Times, “You may have some who do that, but police officers don’t get into the business to not do the work they’ve been hired to do.” Body cams are in fact being used by police departments more widely. Last fall, the Justice Department awarded $23 million to 73 agencies in 32 states to fund the cameras, including more than 300 for Las Vegas officers.
Still, in these unhinged times, it seems somehow incomplete to pin huge jumps in violent crime solely on cop cams, instead of recognizing the larger mix of challenges around us. Nationwide, criminologists point to poverty, the heroin epidemic and gang activity—which is itself associated with poverty and drug use. Also, the “viral video effect” cannot be entirely separated from its roots in the long-standing racial divide, which is aggravated by the hostile, puerile national conversation, one dominated by loud bigotry. The leading Republican presidential candidate is vociferously anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican. A leading news issue—the right of transgender people to use appropriate public restrooms—has prompted others to threaten violence against trans people; “I have my ccw [concealed carry weapons permit] for those weirdos” says one Facebook post. Rhetoric sometimes does turn physical. Metro was called in last week to the state Democratic convention to prevent altercations between Bernie and Hillary supporters. And the following day, the party headquarters got vandalized and the chairwoman allegedly received death threats.
Though a hostile national mood also completely fails to explain the rise in local violence—you can’t help but feel that they feed each other. This morning I woke up to headlines from various news outlets: “Shots Fired on RTC Bus,” “Teen Dead after Gunfight” and “Two Dead After Apparent Murder Suicide.” It’s heartbreaking, mystifying, ominous. One Facebook commenter said, “What the hell is up [with] this state[,] everyday is something [and] I hate it.” More than a hundred others on KTNV’s Facebook page shared similar sentiments.
As we head into the summer—statistically, a time when violent crimes increase—there’s uncertainty in the air. At the Cornerstone Crossing apartments on Rainbow and Washington, there’s also the smell of a burned building in the air, a fire that took 72 firefighters to extinguish last week. The fire was allegedly set by a woman in the middle of a domestic dispute. Whatever the circumstances, that fight displaced 40 other people—innocent neighbors who lost some of their possessions and their homes. While talking to a security officer who was guarding the fenced-off, charred building, I noticed quite a few young kids playing on the basketball court a few yards away. Their laughter, their joy—their triumph over the disaster in their midst—gave me hope.