Las Vegas Sun

September 18, 2019

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Sheriff’s anti-terror force: Strip workers

He’s lobbying for analyst to field their tips, but privacy advocates cry foul

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Law enforcement has long counted on casino security chiefs to report tips about suspicious behavior — and all the more so after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But at the region’s fusion center — a facility where local, state and federal law enforcement agencies share intelligence on homeland security and other criminal activities — none of the 60 staff members has been analyzing tips involving security threats in the resort corridor on a full-time basis.

Fusion center officials hope to change that, lobbying for a fourth intelligence analyst who would give priority to security concerns at resorts.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, conscious of the effects of a terror attack on the region’s economy, is considering picking up the tab to hire the analyst.

Memories remain fresh of the bombings in Bali, Indonesia, and more recently, the terrorist attack at a luxury hotel in Mumbai, India, that killed 171 people.

“Like the whole Western world, when that happened, law enforcement in the Las Vegas Valley questioned: How prepared are we?” said Capt. Brett Primas, commander of Metro’s homeland security bureau. “Has our awareness increased since the Mumbai attacks? Yes, it has a little bit. We have an enemy that has demonstrated they have the capability to carry out small-arms attacks on high-value facilities with lethal efficiency.”

To increase vigilance, authorities are leaning more than ever on casino and hotel employees for help — a strategy that may put hotel employees in uncomfortable positions.

Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie says front-line casino staff — valet attendants, housekeepers, food and cocktail servers, dealers and others — are in good positions to notice suspicious activity.

“If they see something and it doesn’t look right, we want them to reach out to someone,” he said. “We’re not asking them to be the police. Just in the context of doing their job, if they see something that doesn’t look right, rather than justify in their mind that it’s OK, have someone take a look at it.”

The resort-dedicated intelligence analyst would be “another step in the evolution of what we’re trying to do,” Primas said. “It just makes sense.”

The Culinary Union, which represents an overwhelming majority of workers on the Strip, hasn’t been consulted about using casino employees in this manner, Culinary spokeswoman Pilar Weiss said.

Not everybody thinks encouraging casino employees to be tipsters is a good idea. The American Civil Liberties Union calls it spying.

The ACLU has expressed concerns about fusion centers since their inception after 9/11. The ACLU’s national Web site includes a feature called “Don’t Spy on Me,” which includes a map showing the more than 40 fusion centers across the country.

Fusion centers are operating with little oversight “at a time when new technology, government powers and zeal in the ‘war on terrorism’ are combining to threaten Americans’ privacy at an unprecedented level,” the Web site says.

But being vigilant in prevention measures has “taken on a new meaning because of the types of attacks that occurred,” Primas said.

In studying the attacks in Mumbai, law enforcement identified instances when suspicious behavior was spotted but never reported, he said.

Law enforcement is using that lesson to reach out to casino security, distributing copies of a 15-minute training video for employees, produced by UNLV’s Institute for Security Studies, called “7 Signs of Terrorism.”

The institute’s executive director, Scott Smith, said that since August, more than 12,000 copies have gone to businesses in Las Vegas, all 50 states and six foreign countries. The DVD is intended for businesses that cater to guests or tourists and have relatively free access to the facilities, Smith said.

(The film advises that people who appear to be gathering information, conducting surveillance, testing security and rehearsing movements may be planning an attack and that authorities should be alerted.)

“Employees being aware of terrorism activity could be the key that could prevent a bad thing from happening,” Primas said.

Authorities want gaming companies to show the DVD as part of their regular personnel training, he said.

Next month, MGM Mirage will start showing it to current employees and will incorporate it into new hire orientation, company spokeswoman Yvette Monet said.

Jacqueline Peterson, spokeswoman for Harrah’s Entertainment, said she wouldn’t comment specifically on employees’ cooperation with law enforcement other than saying that the company has a number of resources in place to ensure the safety and comfort of guests.

In India, the response to the Mumbai attacks has been swift with most luxury hotels curbing access, adding metal detectors and conducting stringent bag searches. But security measures that are acceptable in India might not be acceptable here.

Gary Peck, director of the ACLU of Nevada, worries about possible civil liberties violations when Strip employees are asked to weed out suspicious behavior. Racial and ethnic profiling could easily be a result, he said.

“All the problems that occur even when dealing with highly professional, well-trained police are even greater when dealing with untrained lay people,” Peck said.

He added: “We’re already dealing with a place that is as close to a Big Brother, total surveillance society as you can get, but no, that’s not enough. We have to encourage everyone to aggressively snoop on everyone else.”

Gillespie said the fusion center encourages tips not just on possible terrorism-related behavior, but criminal activity as well.

Employees “see a lot of things occurring that have very little to do with terrorism,” Gillespie said, giving drug dealing as an example.

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