LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Keeping the community safe means keeping pace with growth, while more people mean more criminals and evolving dangers that challenge police on a daily basis.
13 Action News' special coverage of the complicated issues that come with a growing Las Vegas continues as 13 Investigates looks back at the history of Nevada's largest police force and the influence of organized crime as Las Vegas transformed from meadows to metropolis.
Crime is so integrated into the history of Las Vegas that a historic downtown building that once housed the post office and federal courthouse has been converted to a museum on the topic. The Mob Museum attracts tourists from around the world to explore the Hollywood lure of organized crime figures like Bugsy Siegel, Al Capone and many more. But Las Vegas locals depend on law enforcement to curb criminals like that — keeping crime rates down despite a growing population.
It's a job Phil Ramos knows well. He went from high school to policing the streets of Sin City in 1972. He retired as a detective after 33 years but continues to work as an investigator with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's cold case unit.
When he first started his career in policing, Ramos says Las Vegas was still considered a "wild west town."
"You know, people were riding horses down the street and cowboys kind of were the norm here," he said. "The old nightstick and Mace days were in full effect."
In those years, Vegas continued its rise to big-city status but still had a small-town heart, Ramos recalled.
"People still left their doors unlocked and windows open and left their keys in the car," he said. "There were no such thing as home invasions."
In fact, the year Ramos started his policing career, Metro Police didn't yet exist. He worked for the Clark County Sheriff's Department, a separate agency from the Las Vegas Police Department. Back then, local officials were already debating how to keep up with explosive growth.
In 1973, Senate Bill 340 took effect and merged the sheriff's office and police department into the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
"I don't know that either agency, the sheriff's department or the police department, were quite prepared for that," Ramos said, "because I remember for several months you'd see City of Las Vegas police officer uniforms in Clark County sheriff cars. So they were the blue uniforms that the city wore, in the black-and-white patrol cars that the sheriff's department had, and vice-versa."
Eventually, the two agencies were fully integrated, a move Ramos said was well-received by the public.
"Both city and county saw an increase in the visibility of officers that were not there before the merger because we had more officers to cover the same amount of area," he said.
The merger came just in time, as the crime rate in Las Vegas increased with its population.
"I think the level of violence has increased dramatically," Ramos said.
That perception has caused many over the years to question whether Las Vegas was better when the mob was in charge. But was it? Ramos said it depends who you ask.
"The old-school insiders will tell you, 'Yeah, it was a lot better when the mob ran the casinos because nobody got away with anything," he said. "And there was some truth to that. You know you didn't go in there and embezzle money from the Stardust when Lefty Rosenthal was running the place."
But the influence of organized crime wouldn't last.
"I think the turning point came at the end of the Spilotro era when the Spilotro brothers were found murdered in Illinois," Ramos said.
That was the summer of 1986, and there would prove to be other drastic changes that even tough mafia dons couldn't hold back. The Mariel Boatlift of 1980, for example, brought the migration of more than 100,000 Cubans.
"The vast majority, a huge majority, were good, decent citizens," Ramos said. "But there was a very high level of the criminal element, hardcore criminals that came from the prisons in Cuba."
Ramos says some of those "hardcore criminals" settled in Las Vegas, introducing more weapons and an increased level of violence.
"I don't know how many times I had a cocked .45 put to my head and said, 'If you're a cop, I'm going to kill you right here,'" he said.
Luckily, he was good undercover and under pressure, so he lived to tell those stories of Las Vegas crime lore. He's collected many clues about the valley's criminal history in his decades on the force.
"1980s was a defining decade, I think, for everybody in America," Ramos said. "But particularly here in Vegas, we saw an influx of street gangs coming from various places in the U.S., but particularly from Southern California."
So what do the numbers tell us about how much crime Metro is dealing with for the most recent decade?
According to the department's annual reports, the total crime index in 2020 was 55,709. That's actually a fraction of a percent lower than it was in 2010, at 55,866. But violent crimes dropped 24.6 percent by 2020. At the same time, the population in Metro's jurisdiction increased by more than 200,000.
As far as what areas of town are the most dangerous, Ramos said he's seen a lot of change over the years in that regard as well.
"Various neighborhoods — particularly where the gangs moved into, there's high crime rate area there," Ramos said.
Other spots, like the area that used to be called the "west side," had a lot of crime in the past, but not so much today.
"The biggest change that we've seen in the distribution of crime is the Strip," Ramos said. "It's... it's heartbreaking. Honestly, it's heartbreaking because the Strip is the iconic image of Las Vegas."
Looking forward, Metro wants to keep a ratio of at least 2 officers per 1,000 residents, Deputy Chief Kelly McMahill explained. That's the consensus from academia and law enforcement leaders across the country, "....as far as being able to police in the way that you need to, to both suppress crime and react to crime."
"What we found in our research is most jurisdictions that serve 250,000 people or more, they're actually at about 2.2 officers per 1,000. And I do think that's optimal," McMahill said.
However, reaching that number in Las Vegas is tricky, she said. Because the city is so much more than its residents, Metro is currently operating just below the national standard. Add all the visitors, and "...we're really only at about 1.5 officers per thousand," McMahill said.
That means extra demand for the department and its officers.
"We're averaging about 900 officers a week working overtime," McMahill said.
"I think that the national sort of feeling against police has become a real challenge for us to both keep officers here and also go out and recruit for officers," she added.
Metro is bringing back its cadet program and expanding recruiting efforts to other states. But, McMahill says, it's not just about numbers.
"It's about getting officers that truly reflect the demographics of the people that live and visit the city," she said.
Policing has changed tremendously and become so much more than combating crime, McMahill pointed out. Now, police are picking up the mantle of all the social services that have gone unfunded for many years.
"It's a sad fact that the Clark County Detention Center is the number one treatment facility for the mentally ill that live here," McMahill said.
With a growing population, demand for police services is inevitable. "But the challenge is, and always will be, having enough police officers working this valley to keep the people that live here and visit here safe," McMahill said.
Metro's jurisdiction over the City of Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County — an area bigger than the state of New Jersey — accounts for more than 70 percent of the county's total population.
Still, some of the fastest-growing parts of the valley are North Las Vegas and Henderson. Those police departments will weigh in on the issues facing them and their citizens as 13 Action News' "Meadows to Metropolis" coverage continues.
Tune in to 13 Action News at 6 p.m. throughout the month of November for in-depth reporting on how rapid growth impacts Las Vegans.