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December 21, 2014

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Joe Downtown:

Joe Downtown: Metro officers ready to walk the beat around East Fremont

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L.E. Baskow

Metro Police Capt. Shawn Anderson is spearheading a project to have officers walking a downtown beat.

When considering a list of the most walkable cities, Las Vegas might not make the top 100.

Aside from the Strip or inorganic commercial developments that prohibit vehicular traffic to satisfy tourists, Las Vegas doesn’t have much for people who simply want to walk the neighborhoods.

Many older neighborhoods don’t even have sidewalks.

In at least one area, however, that’s changing. In fact, redevelopment on East Fremont Street is making the area so walkable, Metro Police are about to embark on a new method of patrolling there.

Officers downtown, said Capt. Shawn Anderson, head of Metro’s Downtown Area Command, are going to start walking a concentrated area around Fremont Street. People also will see more officers on bikes in the area bounded by Main Street on the west, Stewart Avenue on the north, Carson Avenue on the south and 13th Street on the east.

“As much as it has changed down here, it would be silly for us not to change, too,” Anderson said earlier this week, sitting in the new Inspire News Cafe, 501 Fremont St. The cafe is housed in what long ago was a 7-Eleven that served only the hardiest street denizens.

“Is there any other place as pedestrian-based as it is here?” he asked.

Other than the Strip, not in Las Vegas. But does that mean policing changes are needed?

“Why would we continue to do things the same way we did them four years ago? Really even two years ago, it’s changed so much,” he replied. “We’ve got to modify things to mirror the changes and to be effective. We want to form strong working relationships with the people who live and work here.”

UNLV’s department of criminal justice will survey residents and business owners before and several months into the effort. Anderson said survey questions would explore attitudes about crime, police and relationships with officers. The follow-up survey will determine if attitudes changed.

UNLV associate professor William Sousa said the survey was being developed and tailored to the East Fremont Street area. It’s a unique section of the city, Sousa said, because it doesn’t have a large residential population, meaning surveys might be distributed at or by some businesses.

Foot patrols, or “walking a beat,” is nothing new to policing. But as vehicles became more common in the 1930s, according to the Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment (2002), departments around the country shifted toward squad cars. Patrolling in vehicles had the added benefit, the argument went, of being able to watch larger areas, so it kept down expenses because fewer officers were required.

Officers on foot still are used in some cities, but only within the last few years have large police departments brought them back on a grander scale. Last fall, The Economist reported foot patrols in Philadelphia helped reduce crime by staggering amounts in some hard-scrabble neighborhoods.

Earlier studies in the 1970s found little reduction in crime where foot patrols took place, but both residents and police officers reported their perception of safety in those areas was much improved, Sousa noted.

“When they’re on foot patrol, it’s not so much us vs. them,” Sousa added. “In a car, you’re responding to citizens at the worst of times – giving them a ticket or when someone is a victim. On foot, you have an intimate relationship with the ‘good people’ on the beat. You get to know them. And those people support those officers, and that really enhances the officer's feelings of safety.”

Philadelphia adopted foot patrols in some areas after a Temple University study in 2009 found “in targeted areas, violent crime decreased by 23 percent.”

Chicago also has adopted foot patrols as part of a much-touted “return to community policing.”

Anderson often walks Fremont Street. When he does, he’s stopped almost every few steps by someone asking directions, how to work the parking meters or just to state an opinion about some police policy.

That interaction could be grating to some officers. Anderson, though, talks to people with a smile and has a light touch.

But what about his officers? Are they prepared to be that interactive on a day-to-day basis?

“After doing this job for years, you learn how to talk to people. It’s a people business,” Anderson answered. “I should be able to walk into this place or into other businesses and they should know me by name.”

Asked if putting Metro officers on foot would lead to less coverage by police in his command area, Anderson said he hoped the effort would reduce crime enough that it would balance out.

“And we’re not going to have a lot more cops working down here any time soon,” Anderson said. Indeed, recent efforts by Metro to obtain a sales tax increase to pay for more officers have not won the approval of elected officials. “I have to be far more efficient with the limited number of people I’ve got and I think this is a step in the right direction,” Anderson said

Anderson’s goal is to see a 10 percent decrease in property and violent crimes “and a significant increase in people’s perception of safety downtown.”

“If we can do that with the resources we have, then we need to think about expanding to other areas,” he added.

This is the second significant move made recently in Anderson’s downtown command. A few weeks ago he announced a program designed to reduce the congestion of homeless people, and attendant traffic and litter issues, near Main Street and Foremaster Lane.

Anderson shook his head at the notion some might consider his police command to be one of the more progressive in the city.

“We just want to get ahead of things instead of always responding to crime,” he said.

What works downtown, he added, isn’t going to work everywhere else in Las Vegas.

“Every area command has a unique set of problems and every commander and station has to respond to them in a unique way,” he said. “The things that will work here in downtown are not going to work in the northwest. To be effective, we have to tailor our efforts to the community. It’s the community’s police department, after all.”

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover Downtown, he lives and works there. He is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded Downtown journalist, stationed at an office in Emergency Arts. His work appears in the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly.

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