Monday, Aug. 5, 2013 | 2 a.m.
For the past week, the football field at Cimarron-Memorial High School has been a proving ground for one of the valley’s most rigorous job applications.
About 1,200 people have put themselves through pushups, situps and mile-long runs for a chance at a job as a Metro Police officer.
After a decade of steady growth, getting a spot on the force has become nearly impossible in recent years as hiring halted amid $60 million in budget cuts.
Some of the 1,200 recruit candidates at Cimarron-Memorial will be selected to enroll in Metro’s Police academy later this year, though only 3 percent will make it all the way through and become an officer.
The academy will be Metro’s first in three years. During that time, the number of commissioned officers at Metro has dropped from a high of nearly 3,000 to the current total of 2,555.
The decrease in staffing has been mirrored by a rise in crime, which is up 9 percent compared with last year, and Metro officials say the cuts are taking their toll.
Help could be on the way for the department, however, in the form of a .15-cent increase in the county’s sales tax that would go toward hiring police officers.
The proposal, which would raise the county's total sales tax to 8.25 percent, was approved by the Legislature during a special session in June and awaits a vote this week by Clark County commissioners.
Metro officials say the additional tax, which comes on top of the still-in-place .25-cent sales tax increase voters approved to hire more police in 2004, will add about $30 million in annual revenue, enough to save the 250 jobs on the chopping block and hire up to 100 new officers, 80 of whom would work on patrol. Police departments in Henderson, North Las Vegas and Boulder City would also receive a boost from the tax. Henderson estimates it would generate $6 million annually for the city, enough to hire up to 35 new officers.
Deputy Chief Kevin McMahill, who oversees Metro’s patrol divisions, said he’s cut back at all eight of the valley’s area commands — from plainclothes and problem-solving units to uniformed officers on patrol.
The Bolden Area Command, which covers some of the valley’s highest-crime areas, has 26 fewer officers available for patrol than it did three years ago. In the Northwest Area Command, fewer than 20 officers generally work the overnight shift patrolling a 104-square-mile area that covers more space than the city of Baltimore. A single major incident that requires a large police response could tie up most of those officers, exposing the rest of the area to longer response times.
“If we don’t get the ability to get more cops, we are going to have to significantly change our business model, and that means people are not going to be able to get the same level of service,” McMahill said.
Las Vegas has long lagged behind the national average in police per capita of 2.25 officers per 1,000 residents. Metro’s current figure of 1.74 officers per 1,000 residents also doesn’t take into account the 40 million tourists who flock to the city each year.
The outlook only threatens to worsen, with Metro facing a $30 million budget deficit that could require it to shed as many as 250 additional officer positions over the next several years.
When Metro’s potential new officers would actually hit the street is a concern. The department has 22 vacant positions waiting to be filled, and the upcoming academy likely won’t produce enough officers to replace the 50 or 60 who retire or leave the department each year. Even with more frequent academy classes, which take about 18 months to complete, it could be several years before Metro has hired enough officers to fill the new positions the sales tax would help pay for, a prospect that concerns County Commissioner Steve Sisolak.
“There will be fewer police officers on the street a year from today whether this (tax) goes through or not,” Sisolak said. “Everyone’s goal when this was discussed, when it was voted on, was to get more officers driving on the street in squad cars. My fear is that’s not going to happen.”
Sisolak said with the gas tax possibly increasing, water bills on the rise and energy prices continuing to climb, he’s worried an increase in the sales tax could be overly burdensome, especially to those least able to afford it.
Rather than impose a tax that would last until 2025, Sisolak said he’d like to see Metro work within its budget, possibly tapping money saved from the 2004 sales tax levy, to maintain the force until the economy improves.
“Everybody would appreciate having more police officers here, but there has to be another way we can look at the budget,” said Sisolak, who sits on Metro’s Fiscal Affairs Committee, which oversees the agency’s budget.
Although Sisolak remains skeptical of the proposal, several fellow commissioners have expressed tentative approval and could swing the vote in favor of implementing the tax starting in October.
“People have definitely separated hiring more officers and everything else. All the other scenarios you would use money for,” Commissioner Larry Brown, who also sits on the Fiscal Affairs Committee, said during a meeting last month. “What I’ve heard today is it’s very specific that only officers and equipment to support them would be used with this additional money. That there’s a paper trail that’s accountable and auditable.”
Brown said that crime statistics indicate the department is near a “crisis situation” and that although the increased tax won’t necessarily increase the size of the force, it will help sustain the department.
If the tax wins approval Tuesday, it will need a rare supermajority of five votes to pass, and if new officers begin patrolling, it could have a significant effect on the climbing crime rate in the area.
Studies have consistently shown increasing the number of police officers in a city, whether in patrol cars or in specialized crime-solving units, corresponds with a drop in a wide range of crime, from murder and assault to auto theft, said Justin McCrary, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies the effect of police on crime.
“Deterrence is the cheapest crime reduction because each person deterred is someone you don’t have to punish, and punishment is expensive,” he said.
Often, he said, increases in taxes to invest in police can be paid back through decreased crime rates.
Improved policing strategies and the expanded use of technology have helped Metro mitigate its dwindling force, McMahill said, but a loss of 250 more officers could prove an insurmountable challenge.
“It’s going to require an adjustment that would cause a significant amount of pain both internally and externally,” he said.
After years of cuts, McMahill said essential services could be affected. "You might have the opportunity to do an online report for insurance purposes only,” he said.
McMahill said he’d invest any new officers into bolstering prevention and intervention-based community policing programs that have leveraged the support of faith-based and community organizations to great effect.
“This whole, tired model of arrest and investigation and incarceration is never going to solve the issue of crime control,” he said. “The way that we’re going to make a difference is through prevention and intervention programs.”
McMahill points to the turnaround at several previously crime-ridden apartment complexes in west Las Vegas through hands-on engagement by police officers that encouraged face-to-face interaction with residents as proof that this new model is working.
Rev. Samuel Carroll, who leads Cavalry Baptist Church near D and Madison streets, credits police from his local area command with helping improve troubled spots in the neighborhood, although service can still be inconsistent.
“There was a burglary at our church, and when we saw the damage in the morning, we called the police to come out and take a report, but they don’t take reports. You have to go into an office to fill one out,” Carroll said.
Although the number of patrol officers has dipped in recent years, Carroll hasn’t noticed a difference in police visibility, and he said he opposes hiring more officers “just to have more police.”
“It’s about ‘How can we prevent some of these young people from resorting to this type of conduct?’ It would be more helpful to spend money in those areas,” he said. “If they can implement some (community) programs, I’m all for it. They did an excellent job of cleaning up Sherman Gardens; that was constructive. But I want more than just locking people up.”