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The Politics of Safety #1

PLASKON: It's Sunday afternoon in Sergeant Ron Fox's air-conditioned cruiser. He supervises officers that patrol the high-crime north east side of Las Vegas. Police call this time of day 'Swing Shift' when day officers hand-off to evening ones. At 4:30 the 14 officers on duty aren't too busy.

FOX: This is fantastic, we have clear units and right now as far as the calls that are holding.

PLASKON: Officers of all ranks all the way up to the sheriff agree this is ideal Sergeant Fox says.

FOX: So we are in pretty good shape right now and the guys see this and this is the time they take to do their directed patrol activities if citizens have called in to request an officers presence for a multitude of problems that come up in the neighborhood this is the time that the time that the officers tow abandoned cars, talk to neighbors and handle neighborhood watch calls, plus eating, this is the time they have to go out and do those things. Go out and look for stolen cars or make car stops.

PLASKON: But after 18 years on the force and seeing officers get busier and busier, he knows it won't be like this for long.

FOX: About another 30 minutes before the storm.

PLASKON: But for now, he and other officers drive around looking for suspicious activity or vehicles. One officer is parked in a dirt lot looking at a Jet Ski.

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FOX: Does that normally look like somebody parks it in the middle of the desert like that?

PLASKON: It's presumably stolen. Last year 15 thousand vehicles were stolen in Las Vegas, up 18 percent over 2002. Free time like this to investigate abandoned vehicles and run license plates is essential to catching vehicle thieves, Fox says. It's a pre-emptive crime measure.

PLASKON: As Fox drives down Washington, little does he know, he's driving toward a man in his 30's with a shaved head inside a blockbuster video. When the man walks out of the store, he sets off the alarm and the Clerk stops him. The man says the alarm was set off by his "Piece E," or in other words, a gun he has. The Clerk calls 911 and Fox responds even though they don't know if anything was stolen.

FOX: I'll head his way

SOUND: Siren, beeping and radio.

PLASKON: Last year there were nearly 4 thousand robberies in Metro's jurisdiction, up 4 percent over the previous year. Robberies are a higher priority than car thefts because people are danger. Also swing shift is dedicated to catching robbers more than other shifts because a lot of robberies occur during that shift. Fox drives down back-streets looking for the suspect from the video store. But he stops a man who doesn't match the description at all.

FOX: You have no more guns, knives, atomic missiles.

PLASKON: It turns out that the man is the father of the suspect from the video store. After nearly an hour of questioning and waiting to see if California wants the man extradited for a warrant Sergeant Fox lets him go. Meanwhile all the other officers have become busy with calls and there are 5 calls waiting from the public for an officer. He can see them all on his in-car computer. One call is a pizza delivery boy robbed of his pizza. Fox says it's dangerous when there aren't enough officers to respond to critical situations that might arise.

FOX: Because now instead of just having a slow day, you are going form call to call to call to call. Some calls require more thought process than others and you want to make sure that when you get buried you want to make sure that you don't sacrifice quality because of sheer volume.

PLASKON: That's why officers take the time to finish with the stolen jet ski or deal with the father who didn't commit a crime - they don't sacrifice quality. One officer who is regularly buried in calls is 26 years old Erik Carlson. He is the only officer not on a call.

CARLSON: Now our call sign is 3f43 which means we are mainly responsible for handling the Frank area, which is all the area north of Washington and east of Pecos.

PLASKON: But while he is driving leisurely, down the street robbers are trying to escape a Meyrvins Department store with hundreds of dollars in merchandise. When Carlson gets the call, it develops into one of those critical situations as the thieves try to escape and officers yell for help.

CARLSON: Obviously it is dangerous because hot calls like this get your adrenalin going and that is why some of us are out here, I will be honest with you.


PLASKON: Six officers and a helicopter are there when Carlson arrives. All the suspects are in custody and he gets the paper work started. With so many officers on this incident and no longer responding to calls the number of emergencies waiting has now piled up to 10. Carlson leaves the Meyrvins scene and heads to one of those calls as fast as possible.

CARLSON: I like it when it is busy like this, It makes the time go by faster and I feel like I am a little bit sharper when things are moving a little bit faster pace, but at the same time, you start dragging and you start to feel yourself getting really fatigued and tired.

PLASKON: Fatigue and violent situations aren't a good combination. The next call is in the violence category. It could be a dangerous even though it's about someone being shot with a BB-gun.

CARLSON: Someone sees it and they think, that's a gun, and then some gets hit with it and they think, I've been shot and it sucks to go and put yourself in jeopardy to find out that it is only a kid playing with a bb gun just to find out that no one is really hurt. Now we have wasted all that time that we could be doing something more important.

PLASKON: And that's exactly what it is, a kid complaining that he was shot in the butt with a b-b gun.

CARLSON: Okay, was it a BB or a pellet. What kind of gun was it?

PLASKON: Officer Carlson determines that no crime was committed here but doesn't want the problem to escalate in the future. He spends an hour questioning and advising the parents and children, telling them not to do drugs and to stay away from each other. Meanwhile another officer dealing with a potentially violent situation has been waiting for officer Carlson for 45 minutes. Carlson rushes there next. He knows what kind of criminal investigations are being sacrificed because there aren't enough officers.

CARLSON: Right now we can't go out to the area that I would like to hit and see if they have any priors for robbery. We can't go out there and stop cars that might look suspicious in the are that might be casing out an establishment to go in and rob the bartender because we have to handle the calls first.

PLASKON: He arrives at the domestic violence call and meets Officer Brian Slattery.

SOUNDS: Slattery

PLASKON: A man wants his mother's stolen car back and is afraid he will be attacked by the admitted speed user who has it. Officer Slattery couldn't go with him alone because that would be dangerous. So he's waited for Carlson. The fear of being attacked is real. According to the FBI more than 10 percent of officers are assaulted every year. 3 percent are actually injured. After an hour helping the man get his car, Carlson and Slattery head to another domestic violence call: a man threatening a family with a knife and beating on their trailer-home with a bat. The number of emergency calls holding for police is still climbing.

CARLSON: Here we are handling this report and we have 12 calls holding and one of them is a report of shots being fired and we have no units clear and we have to handle this and obviously these people are distraught and they fear for their life.

PLASKON: Other parts of the city aren't as busy as this. South Central has 6 calls waiting for officers, 2 are holding in downtown and 3 in the North West area of town. Carlson determines that no crime has been committed at this domestic violence call either. His Sergeant estimates that 90 percent of the million calls they get every year end up in mediating disputes like this, where no real crime has been committed. Carlson says they are preventing all these disputes from escalating.

CARLSON: I am just as human as the next person and when my emotions get hot I make irrational decisions, it is just a part of life but obviously my level of irrationality doesn't incline to pulling knives or guns or bats.

PLASKON: While that is a danger, sending highly qualified officer to calls that only require mediation can be re-considered according to Ted Lamay of the Commission on Accredidation for Law Enforcement agencies.

LAMAY: Weather there is an auxiliary type group that will handle as the police would say a mediation type thing it is up to what the community will allow, a lot of times what the community expects is that I call a cop, I wanna see a cop. And a lot of times that is Bill said this or Mary said that and a lot of times people expect a lot from police officers.

PLASKON: Police are doing a good job preventing violent crime. Violent crime rose only 2 percent last year to 9-thousand instances according to the FBI. But while officers are working to prevent escalating violence the most common crimes are going unattended because there aren't enough officers. A petty larceny crime sat unattended for at least a half hour without a response from an officer. Without enough officers to focus on that kind of crime, it's rising. Up 20 percent last year to more than 57-thousand instances. That's a statistic, police say, they could whittle away, with more officers . . . if voters approve higher sales taxes in November.

Ky Plaskon, News 88-9 KNPR

Tomorrow Ky Plaskon reports on officers who aren't so busy and a new initiative they've begun to add to the millions of dollars they raise for the city and county. Also, Thursday guest host Steve Sibelious explores the ballot initiative intended to fund more police in the valley on KNPR's State of Nevada.

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Monday, October 4, 2004