Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: As the area grows, Metro’s stronger presence is a work in progress

On the beat: Metro officers Rachel Calderon and Bryce Jones patrol Fremont Street, where an increased police presence has been met with some complaints.
Justin M. Bowen

Downtown Las Vegas’ growth is no secret. The Container Park is about to open, Zappos employees will start moving into the old City Hall next week, followed by 800 new workers at the Downtown Grand. Meanwhile, East Fremont has become a popular barhopping destination, drawing scrutiny from police and concern from businesses. Metro Police Capt. Shawn Andersen, who oversees some 130 officers Downtown, asked me recently, “How are we doing?”

Hits and misses.

Seeing Andersen and his officers walking around is a definite hit. The impact of that familiarity can’t be overstated; it gives people the sense police are a part of the community, not just sheepherders.

But there have also been complaints that police are too heavy-handed. One recent Friday night, as hundreds camped outdoors drinking on Fremont, police checked IDs of some 180 people for underage drinkers, finding eight. They also arrested 54, about one-third of those for outstanding warrants.

There are smaller incidents that don’t make for headlines. Last Friday, Downtown regulars Cliff (not his real name) and Justin experienced one while walking on Fremont East. It was between 8 and 9 p.m., both men were in short-sleeve, button-down shirts and cargo shorts, and they started to cross Sixth Street at Fremont. They say the walk light was on when they began and was blinking don’t walk by the time they crossed. On the other side, a cop ordered Cliff’s hands on his squad car and his legs spread. Both men were frisked, their IDs confiscated briefly and their bags checked.

“Jaywalking,” the officer said, but they weren’t ticketed.

Cliff’s a God-fearing former lobbyist working on an app business. Justin is laying the groundwork here to make it in the recording industry. Cliff’s also from the deep South, and he and Justin say they know the drill, believing they were stopped because they are black.

Mike Pawlak feels he was profiled, too, though the middle-aged, long-time manager in local government is white. On a Sunday in late June, Pawlak, who has lived Downtown for 14 years, was bicycling on Fremont at Eighth Street around 7 a.m. He rode onto the sidewalk, got off his bike and took some pictures.

The street was “deathly quiet,” he says, but for two Metro bike cops riding his way. He mounted his bike to ride on.

“Whoa,” one of the officers asked. “Where are you going?”

Who was he? Where did he live? Why was he here? “On and on like that,” Pawlak says of the questioning. “Then they started giving me lectures on bike law.”

Riding on the sidewalk was against the law here, they said. He wasn’t ticketed.

Sure, it’s a nothing stop. But why even do it? Instead of an interrogation and lecture, wouldn’t a friendly conversation communicate just as much information?

Pawlak, a veteran and father of three, has worn a ponytail for too long to remember. It’s his thing. He also believes it’s why he was stopped. “I think it was stereotyping, profiling,” he says.

A cop for 24 years, Andersen is deliberate and soft-spoken. Asked about the two incidents, he says he doesn’t know what goes through a cop’s mind during stops like those. He does know that changes Downtown are coming fast and furious. His officers are trying to get a feel for what’s happening, he says. Everybody is learning and trying to adjust.

“It’s so interesting,” he says, adding in the same breath, “It’s very challenging, too.”

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover Downtown, he lives and works there. He is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded Downtown journalist, stationed at an office in Emergency Arts. His work appears in the Las Vegas Weekly and Las Vegas Sun.
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