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July 5, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

The Strip needs more police, but casinos shouldn’t foot the bill

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

After an ugly spate of homicides on the Las Vegas Strip last summer, major hotel companies now pay to have Metro Police conduct extra patrols of our most important commercial district.

From one vantage point this looks like a good deal for everyone: Those hotels bring all the people here, and the people need police protection, so why shouldn’t the hotels pay for it?

I’ll play contrarian (a stretch, I know): This a terrible idea. It creates the appearance of collusion between big corporations that own the Strip hotels and our police force.

What’s the problem with that? The Strip, after all, is our economic engine, and surely we need to protect the assets, employees and customers who make it all possible.

The problem is that it threatens Metro’s independence.

Independence from political and commercial influence “is absolutely fundamental to democratic policing,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer, training officer and prosecutor and now an expert in policing at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Officer Jay Rivera, a Metro Police spokesman, said the public has nothing to fear, that officers are independent of the hotel companies, and that they are policing on the basis of the facts and the law only.

“As an officer, when you’re out there, the fact that a (casino) property paid for the overtime has no bearing. They’re going based on the merits of the case,” Rivera said.

The paychecks, he said, still say Metro.

He added: “As an officer, if you’re citing someone, you have to answer to a judge what you did, why you did it, the evidence you have, and there will be witnesses. There will be a defense attorney. You have to answer those questions. I don’t see how an officer says, ‘The reason I made an arrest or didn’t make an arrest was because (a hotel) paid for the shift.’”

Well, obviously an officer isn’t going to say that. But the unconscious mind is a powerful thing. My former colleague Liz Benston wrote a story last year about Bob Nersesian, an attorney in town who makes a very good living suing hotels when their security guards get a little overly rambunctious with an unwanted guest.

“Nersesian and other critics of casino security call it a culture of thuggery and intimidation by poorly trained security guards,” the story said. “Police are inclined to believe that a handcuffed patron has committed a crime rather than suspect the customer was improperly arrested, they say.”

“Improperly arrested” by hotel security? Yes, hotel security have the power of arrest — just as you and I do — if they witness a crime.

But you get the point: Hotel security will detain someone for one reason or another — perhaps justifiably, perhaps not — and police will show up and try to figure out what’s going on.

Whose side will Metro take when they know the hotel is indirectly paying them?

Rivera reiterated that Metro must comport with the law: “We can’t take people’s liberty away willy-nilly if the facts and circumstances don’t amount to probable cause.”

Still, I go back to appearances. Our civic fabric is already frayed by the widespread belief in the Las Vegas Valley that the fix is always in for the big boys.

What if we couldn’t afford the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, so the oil companies paid for patrols of the Persian Gulf? It would look unseemly, at best.

It’s common around the country for promoters to pay police for their special events. In fact, our unique arrangement, called “Safe Strip,” is run by the special events administrative arm of Metro, though an area command is also involved, Rivera said.

It’s also true that we often impose fees on industries to pay for agencies to regulate them, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, and, yes, the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

But the Strip pay-for-patrol arrangement, it seems to me, is in a totally different category.

O’Donnell said our arrangement is akin to what he’s seen when training police in Third World countries.

“You need to be extra careful in Las Vegas, where you have an industry with such a huge footprint, that police are separated from that industry,” he said.

He called our pay-for-patrol deal “formalized temptation.”

We already have a problem with the appearance of coziness between law enforcement and hotel companies. Our sheriff and district attorney have to run for re-election every four years, and often much of their campaign money comes from the Strip. The two previous sheriffs went to work for casino companies.

“Police are supposed to serve everyone equally. Police need to be willing to lock up a hotel manager or a head of security for falsely detaining someone,” O’Donnell said.

Our arrangement seems to have raised few eyebrows so far because we in Southern Nevada love government services, but only when someone else pays the tab.

As O’Donnell said, however, “One thing you learn as a cop is ‘Nothing for nothing.’ People do things in exchange for things.”

Oh, c’mon. I’m sure our casino companies’ only motive is to be upstanding corporate citizens.

It’s true we need extra police officers on the Strip. And all of us should pay for it.

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