Las Vegas Sun

December 22, 2014

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Police make pitch to voters

First came the call reporting shots fired downtown; then moments later a robbery was reported blocks away.

"We had no units to respond to either," said Metro Police Detective Todd Rosenberg, who works the swing shift in the department's violent crimes section and serves as treasurer for the police union.

"The nearest unit was three or four miles away."

Luckily both turned out to be false alarms, but Rosenberg and other police said it still illustrates the problems officers encounter on a regular basis because there aren't enough cops on the streets.

Sheriff Bill Young and other Southern Nevada police departments are trying to change that, and on Thursday they made a plea to voters to pass the so-called "More Cops" ballot initiative.

The question will appear on the November ballot asking voters if they support an increase in sales tax to pay for more police officers.

A 1/4 cent increase would start in July 2005 with a second 1/4 cent increase beginning in July 2009. The total increase would be 1/2 cent, bringing the sales tax rate to 8 percent.

The question isn't binding -- Young would have to convince the legislature to approve the change.

"Nobody wants to raise taxes, but nobody wants a high crime rate," Young said. "We don't have enough cops to keep Las Vegas safe."

This doesn't just effect Metro -- funds from the tax increase would also flow to the Henderson, North Las Vegas, Boulder City and Mesquite police departments. All are below the national average of 2.5 officers per 1,000 citizens, authorities said.

Metro has 1.7 officers per 1,000 residents; North Las Vegas has 1.4; Henderson has 1.1; Mesquite has 1.3 and Boulder City has 1.9.

The national average is 2.5 officers per 1,000 people, but in western states the ratio is typically 1.6 to 2 officers per 1,000, officials said.

Mesquite Police Chief Douglas Law said his city is growing and fears response times and crime will rise if he doesn't add more cops to his force.

Henderson experienced a major growth spurt in the 1990s, and in November 2000 and in May 2001 the department tried to get voters to approve a ballot initiative that would have allowed the department to hire more officers by increasing property taxes. The measure failed both times.

Henderson Police Chief Michael Mayberry said he thinks this initiative has a better shot at passing.

Residents "have now come to the realization that we have a drastic need for more police officers," he said.

Some Henderson residents might not agree with that assessment in light of the fact that the FBI's preliminary Uniform Crime Report indicates that in 2003 the violent crime rate was down 6.6 percent in Henderson. But the report also states that there was a 6.8 percent increase in the property crime rate last year compared with the 2002 rate.

In Metro's jurisdiction of unincorporated Clark County and Las Vegas there was a 2 percent increase in violent crime and a 20.3 percent increase in the property crime rate in 2003, according to the same FBI report.

It also states that North Las Vegas had a 10.5 percent decrease in its violent crime rate and only a 0.6 percent increase in the property crime rate. The arguments against the ballot question include that growth -- increases in the revenue from increased property values and newly developed property as well as from growth in the sales tax revenue at the existing tax rate -- should be sufficient for the police departments if they are operating as efficiently as possible and if they are budgeting properly.

If the sales tax increase were to be approved then Clark County would have the highest sales tax in the state, a sales tax rate that would force the buyer of a $20,000 vehicle to pay $1,600 in sales tax.

Young said he considered going for a property tax increase at first, but decided to try a sales tax increase instead, allowing Las Vegas' tourist population, which also requires police services, to help shoulder the burden.

Having more officers will improve response times, police said. Response times in Henderson range from nine to 12 minutes and Metro's are eight to nine minutes, the police departments say.

With officers running from call to call, there is little time for crime prevention and neighborhood patrols, police said.

"We need to get back to the days when police officers drove through the neighborhood, talking to people washing their cars outside," Mayberry said.

Officer safety is also at risk, police said.

Metro Police Detective Michael Gillins, also a director of the union, said that recently an officer was holding four suspects at gunpoint and called a code red, meaning he needed help immediately.

But he had to wait five or six minutes before backup arrived.

"That's a scary situation," Gillins said.

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