Las Vegas Sun

December 20, 2014

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DAILY MEMO: crime:

As economy drops off, so do robberies

Thank Metro Police, or supply and demand

The Taco Bandit’s reign is over. The robber pleaded guilty to holding up 10 Mexican restaurants. Now he’s spending at least 15 years in prison.

Another victory for team Gillespie, maybe.

Robbery, the sheriff’s pet issue, is a fickle beast at best, hard to put your finger on and dead serious, sort of like the man himself.

Doug Gillespie has pushed his troops to tackle the problem, and the numbers are down. Robberies have dropped 10 percent, year to date.

That sounds good, even if the overall numbers are still nasty. Metro took 2,483 robbery reports from Jan. 1 to June 26 — 14 every day, on average. Last year, it was nearly 16 a day.

So does Metro get credit for the decline?

This gets tricky. The local economy is sputtering and common sense says that when the economy goes down, crime goes up.

One school of thought says otherwise. UNLV criminal justice professor Tamara Madensen and others suggest the Las Vegas economy may be discouraging crime because it is encouraging would-be robbers to leave town. They’re losing jobs, being booted from foreclosed homes and seeing robbery opportunities decline with every closed business or vacant house. It may not sound like much, but minor changes to the environment can add up, Madensen said.

Consider this: During the Depression, crime rates fell. During the economic surge that spanned 1955 to 1972, crime rates soared.

Eli Lehrer, a former fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., has suggested that rising incarceration rates have cut crime. Fewer criminals on the streets means less crime. And there’s no denying Nevada’s prison population is one of the nation’s fastest-growing.

Steven Levitt, the economist co-author of the book “Freakonomics,” concluded in a 1996 study that the release of one inmate is associated with an increase of 15 crimes a year. Other studies show that taking down just a few high-frequency robbers, such as the Taco Bandit, can seriously cut into crime.

But could the reduction here also be attributed to Gillespie’s crusade?

The sheriff doubled to 28 the number of detectives combating robbery. Those detectives have started working weekends. Their supervisors have inventive enforcement ideas, the most fantastic involving cops’ dressing like deadbeats, milling around in the community’s darkest corners and trying to get themselves mugged.

Experts say the key to reducing robberies long term is adopting a two-pronged approach.

First, police must use heavy-hitting suppression tactics to make their intentions known in areas where robbery is especially a problem.

Metro has done this, with saturation teams of officers and a new policy requiring beat cops to open robbery investigations pending the arrival of detectives, because fresh information is best. Metro is also combing robbery statistics for patterns, looking for repeat criminals.

The second prong is more complicated, and more important. It involves building robbery reduction tactics into the community. It means working with local leaders to understand the problem and examine environmental features that invite crime — the “broken windows” theory. Part of that is changing a mind-set, convincing shop owners robbery isn’t a cost of doing business. Metro is doing these things too.

But oddly, the only way we’ll know if Metro is truly responsible for the robbery decline might be to wait for the economy to bounce back — in effect, looking for a dark lining in a silver cloud.

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