Las Vegas’ police history, recruiting challenges

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LAS VEGAS (KTNV) – Keeping community safe means keeping pace with growth as more people mean more criminals and evolving threats challenging the police every day.

13 Action News special coverage of the intricate problems of growing Las Vegas continues, while 13 Investigates looks back on the history of Nevada’s greatest police force and the impact of organized crime as Las Vegas shifts from meadow to meadow Metropolis transformed.

Crime is so integrated into Las Vegas history that a historic downtown building that once housed the post office and federal court has been converted into a museum dedicated to the subject. The Mob Museum draws tourists from around the world to explore the lure of Hollywood’s organized crime like Bugsy Siegel, Al Capone, and many more. But Las Vegas locals rely on law enforcement to contain such criminals – and keep crime rates down despite a growing population.

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It’s a job Phil Ramos knows well. In 1972 he walked out of high school and took to the streets of Sin City. He retired after 33 years as a detective, but continues to work as an investigator in the Cold Case Unit of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

At the beginning of his career as a police officer, says Ramos, Las Vegas was still a “city in the wild west”.

“You know, people rode horses down the street and cowboys were the norm here,” he said. “The old stick and mace days were in full swing.”

During those years, Vegas continued its rise to the big city but still had a small-town heart, Ramos recalled.

“People still left their doors unlocked and windows open and their keys in the car,” he said. “There were no house breakthroughs.”

In fact, Metro Police didn’t exist the year Ramos began his police career. He worked for the Clark County Sheriff’s Department, a separate agency from the Las Vegas Police Department. Even then, local officials were debating how to keep pace with the explosive growth.

In 1973 Senate Bill 340 went into effect and merged the sheriff’s office and police force into the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

“I don’t know if the authorities, the sheriff’s department or the police were prepared,” Ramos said, “because I remember seeing City of Las Vegas police uniforms at the Clark County Sheriff for several months So were the blue uniforms that the city wore in the black and white patrol cars that the police department had, and vice versa. “

Eventually the two agencies were fully integrated, a move that Ramos said was well received by the public.

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“In both the city and the county, the visibility of officials who were absent prior to the merger has increased because we had more officials to cover the same area,” he said.

The merger came just in time as the crime rate in Las Vegas increased with population.

“I think the level of violence has increased dramatically,” said Ramos.

That perception has led many over the years to wonder if Las Vegas was any better than the mob was in charge. But was that it? Ramos said it depends who you ask.

“The old school insiders will tell you, ‘Yeah, it was a lot better when the mob ran the casinos because nobody got away with anything,” he said. “And there was some truth in that. You know you didn’t go in there and embezzled money from the Stardust when Lefty Rosenthal ran the place. “

But the impact of organized crime would not last.

“I think the turning point came at the end of the Spilotro era when the Spilotro brothers were found murdered in Illinois,” said Ramos.

That was the summer of 1986, and there were to be other drastic changes that even tough Mafia thunder couldn’t hold back. For example, the 1980 Mariel boat lift displaced more than 100,000 Cubans.

“The vast majority, a huge majority, were good, decent citizens,” said Ramos. “But there was a very high level of criminal elements, hardcore criminals, who came out of the prisons in Cuba.”

MEADOWS TO THE METROPOLIS | Read more from our special series

Ramos says some of these “hardcore criminals” have settled in Las Vegas and introduced more guns and increased levels of violence.

“I don’t know how many times I’d put a crooked .45 on my head and say, ‘If you’re a cop, I’ll kill you right here,'” he said.

Luckily he was good undercover and under pressure so he lived to tell these crime stories from Las Vegas. During his decades with the police, he collected a lot of clues about the criminal history of the valley.

“I think the 1980s was a pivotal decade for everyone in America,” said Ramos. “But especially here in Vegas we saw an influx of street gangs from various parts of the US, particularly from Southern California.”

What do the numbers tell us about the crime Metro has dealt with over the past decade?

According to the ministry’s annual reports, the overall crime index in 2020 was 55,709. That is even a fraction of a percent less than in 2010 when 55,866. But violent crime fell by 24.6 percent by 2020. At the same time, the population in Metro’s jurisdiction increased by more than 200,000.

As for the most dangerous parts of the city, Ramos said he has changed a lot over the years in that regard too.

“Different neighborhoods – especially where the gangs have moved in, there is an area with a high crime rate,” said Ramos.

Other locations, such as the area that used to be called the “West Side”, have seen a lot of crime in the past but not that much today.

“The biggest change we’ve seen in the distribution of crime is the Strip,” said Ramos. “It’s … it’s heartbreaking. Honestly, it’s heartbreaking because the Strip is the iconic image of Las Vegas.”

Looking ahead, Metro wants to maintain a ratio of at least 2 civil servants per 1,000 residents, said deputy chief Kelly McMahill. This is the consensus of academic and law enforcement agencies across the country, “… provided you are able to run the police as you need to, both to suppress crime and respond to crime.”

“What we found in our research is that most jurisdictions serve 250,000 people or more, in fact about 2.2 officers per 1,000. And I think that’s optimal, ”said McMahill.

However, it is difficult to hit that number in Las Vegas, she said. Because the city is so much more than its inhabitants, the metro currently runs just below the national standard. Add all the visitors and “… we’re really only at about 1.5 officers per thousand,” McMahill said.

That means additional needs for the department and its officers.

“We average about 900 officers a week who work overtime,” McMahill said.

“I think the national sentiment towards the police has become a real challenge for us to both keep officers here and go out and recruit officers,” she added.

Metro is bringing back its cadet program and expanding recruiting efforts to other states. But, says McMahill, it’s not just about numbers.

“It’s about getting officials who really reflect the demographics of the people who live and visit in the city,” she said.

Police work has changed enormously and is so much more than just fighting crime, stressed McMahill. Now the police are taking over the cloak of all the social services that have not been funded for many years.

“It’s a sad fact that the Clark County Detention Center is the number one treatment facility for the mentally ill who live here,” said McMahill.

With a growing population, the demand for police services is inevitable. “But the challenge is, and always will be, to have enough police officers working in this valley to protect the people who live and visit here,” said McMahill.

Metro’s jurisdiction over the city of Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County – an area larger than the state of New Jersey – makes up more than 70 percent of the county’s total population.

However, some of the fastest growing parts of the valley are North Las Vegas and Henderson. These law enforcement agencies will address the issues they and their citizens face as 13 Action News coverage of Meadows to Metropolis continues.

Tune in to 13 Action News at 6:00 p.m. throughout November for an in-depth look at how the rapid growth is affecting Las Vegans.