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April 18, 2014

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Fighting crime a few steps off the Las Vegas Strip

You’ll not likely see the lawlessness of downtown’s seedy edges

Downtown Las Vegas

Officer Erik Janecek, left, and Officer Rico Rodriquez of Metro's Downtown Area Command unit check on a welfare call in downtown Las Vegas Friday, March 5, 2010. Launch slideshow »

A man in a clown suit, dancing in the middle of the road, obstructing traffic — just another call police patrolling Metro’s Downtown Area Command responded to on a recent Friday afternoon.

A fight between friends that ended with one shot in the face — another call that came in over the radio, shortly after the dancing clown.

Bouncing between wildly different calls is business as usual for cops working downtown Las Vegas — a symptom of the place, which is varied as its people, and the crimes they sometimes commit.

There are no sprawling stucco developments downtown. This is the area’s appeal, and sometimes its burden. The dingy motels, the aging industrial stretches, the homeless and nearly homeless people who make up certain segments of downtown — all can read “dangerous” to tourists and locals alike.

And, like it or not, this isn’t all wrong. There are parts of downtown where poverty and drugs beget crimes of opportunity: street-level muggings and beatings. But — and this is important — these police “hot spots” are areas you would avoid anyway. Who really wants to stroll dark, narrow alleys that wind behind boarded-up houses? Who wants to spend their weekend standing in a dirt lot with no streetlights, or hanging out in a convenience store parking lot next to a shuttered muffler-repair shop?

No, the truth about crime downtown is that it’s contained, in a way. It’s poor people victimizing poorer people in their own back yards. It’s the kind of things tourists on Fremont Street, or locals milling around First Friday, just don’t rub shoulders with — like the call that came over the radio just as the monthly arts event started last week: a six-person fight in a dilapidated apartment complex. By the time officers arrived, the fight was over, and nobody wanted to press charges.

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Officer Erik Janecek of Metro's Downtown Area Command unit argues with a woman in his squad car that he arrested for having a felony warrant near Las Vegas Bouldvard and Charleston Avenue in downtown Las Vegas Friday, March 5, 2010.

Officer Erik Janecek patrols four nights a week in downtown Las Vegas. He keeps largely within an eight-mile radius, a small square that has put him on a first-name basis with several interesting and occasionally arrestable characters. In a matter of hours on this Friday, Janecek arrested a woman with an outstanding felony warrant, did a welfare check on a man with Alzheimer’s, checked on a suspicious person loitering in someone’s driveway, had a truck towed, took a report on juveniles trying to steal a car, checked on a fighting married couple and sent home a bunch of teenagers partying in an empty building, among other calls.

While Janecek patrols, police interdiction teams focus on specialized problems, which are themselves revealing of the crime picture downtown: drugs, prostitution, gangs. Working this way, downtown crime dropped 8 percent in 2009, Metro Police say, while robberies fell 3 percent. Of course, these statistics wars are won in the shadows and seedy pockets of downtown — places where people seldom know about police efforts, for better or worse.

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Officer Erik Janecek of Metro's Downtown Area Command Unit listens to a man named "Teardrop."

Toward the end of his shift, Janecek is called to check on a man named Teardrop, beaten beyond swollen and so wobbly he can hardly stand. Teardrop’s friends say they found him outside, moaning. But Teardrop says he doesn’t know what happened, doesn’t want to press charges. He has an extensive arrest record for drugs, domestic violence and theft — his silence is chalked up as part of the same old downtown spin cycle: perpetrator today, victim tomorrow. After begging off an ambulance ride, Teardrop stumbles home.

Not too far away, hundreds of people are standing motionless, staring at the ceiling of the Fremont Street Experience. Others are walking to the Beauty Bar. Teenagers are standing in packs outside downtown art galleries. A bunch of frat guys are pouring out of a Mexican restaurant. All of them look happy and amused. None of them will ever run into Teardrop.

This story appears in the current issue of Las Vegas Weekly, a sister publication of the Sun.

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