Agency Profile: Las Vegas Metro
This department is up to the task in one of America’s wildest cities
by Dale Stockton
Click here to subscribe to Law Officer Magazine
Las Vegas is probably the world’s most famous and infamous city. With its very own New York skyline, Venetian canals and Eiffel Tower, Vegas is a glittering neon oasis in the middle of a vast desert. Nearly everything is available here, and most of it’s legal. Then there’s that famous marketing phrase: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
What’s it like to police this area? I visited Las Vegas and talked to the men and women who work there. I’ll give you an inside look at the operations of the Las Vegas Metro Police Department (LVMPD) and why it might just be a great agency to consider for a career.
The city of Las Vegas is home to almost 1.8 million people, but the population is dwarfed by the more than 36 million who visit every year. Tourists come to take advantage of everything from high-stakes gambling to big-name entertainment in the metropolis that never sleeps. Policing here is a challenge; the area has been growing so quickly that it is difficult for the officers to keep up with the ever-expanding demands for service.
Las Vegas lies within Clark County, almost all of which is policed by the LVMPD. With more than 2,100 police officers and 670 correctional officers, LVMPD is the largest law enforcement agency in Nevada and one of the largest in the country. The agency is a result of a 1973 consolidation of the Clark County Sheriff’s Department and the City of Las Vegas Police Department. The department’s jurisdiction encompasses more than 8,000 square miles and includes both remote desert areas and some of the world’s ritziest real estate. Unlike many sheriff’s departments, LVMPD maintains separate police and correctional officer career paths but provides equal compensation and benefits to both jobs. Given the nature of the area, it’s not surprising the normal jail count for the agency runs well over 2,000.
Las Vegas Metro became the first accredited agency in Nevada in 1989 and today maintains accreditation from four different reviewing entities, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, the American Society for Crime Laboratory Directors, the American Correctional Association and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.
All applicants (including officers from other jurisdictions) are processed at the entry level. Testing includes a written exam, a physical fitness test, an oral interview, psychological evaluations, a polygraph, a background investigation and a comprehensive medical exam. Successful applicants go to an LVMPD-run academy that lasts 22–24 weeks. Field training lasts for 18 weeks; probation runs for 18 months after the academy.
LVMPD is decentralized with seven command stations scattered around the metro area. Patrol officers work a four-ten schedule, and there are three overlapping shifts. Officers do not rotate through the shifts, but there is a bid process every February, and personnel can request a change. Most investigative positions work a five-nine shift, permitting three-day weekends every other week. Correctional officers work a modified three-twelve shift. All of the schedules are designed to permit employees to maximize their time off while maintaining operational efficiency. The department handles its own dispatching, and the communicators work out of a new centralized facility where more than 800,000 911 calls are handled every year. Including non-emergency calls for service, the number tops three million.
Patrol cars are one-person units (unless it’s a training car) equipped with mobile data terminals. Both shotguns and less-lethal weaponry are carried in the car. Provided the officer is qualified, many cars also carry an AR-15 rifle. The issue weapon for officers is a Smith and Wesson 759, but officers are permitted to purchase and carry their own weapon within department criteria. Several manufacturers are acceptable, and the caliber must be 9mm, .40 or .45 (a backup weapon is permitted and must be .45 caliber or smaller). Most patrol officers also carry a Taser X46 after completing department-required training. A body armor allowance provided every seven years allows officers to choose armor that suits their needs and preferences.
If you’ve ever been to the Las Vegas Strip area, you have probably seen LVMPD officers on bicycles. In 1990, the department decided to try bicycle patrol to address some problem areas—the Strip was high on the list. Today, the unit that works the Strip is supervised by Sgt. Tom “TJ” Jenkins, who oversees several bike officers working the peak activity hours. Jenkins has been with LVMPD for 13 years and has supervised the Strip Bike Detail for eight years. Bike officers on the strip see a little bit of everything—good and bad. “For some reason, people will do things in Las Vegas that they would never think of doing at home,” says Jenkins, who often works in a patrol truck, covering his officers on their contacts and providing general patrol as the bike officers work the busiest areas. The officers deftly use the stealth of the bicycle to surprise those who would otherwise avoid police contact. “We’re experts at coming up on people without them ever knowing,” Jenkins says. “Even with the yellow shirts, we sneak up on a lot of people. We target the scams, the pickpockets and the prostitutes.”
The bikes are also very effective at moving through heavy traffic or cutting through areas inaccessible to cars. They often arrive on scene well before officers in a regular patrol unit can get there. However, riding a bike in this area can prove challenging and even dangerous due to the traffic congestion, numerous distractions and many drivers under the influence. A few months ago, two bike officers were seriously injured when a tourist looking up at signs hit them from behind. “When I rolled up on the scene there was equipment everywhere and the bikes were in pieces all over the street,” Jenkins says. “It was hard to believe we didn’t have a fatality. The helmets were really chewed up, but they certainly saved their lives,” Jenkins says.
The bike patrol rolls on specialized Cannondale bikes wearing uniforms comprised of black shorts and yellow shirts from Mocean, with a custom jacket in black and gold made by Olympic. The striking uniform recently caught the eye of Disney World officials, who brought Jenkins out to model the uniform and discuss the benefits of policing by bicycle.
The detail is a sought-after assignment, and officers are selected for the unit through an annual bid and interview process. They generally stay unless they are promoted or request transfer. “It’s a very popular job, and we really don’t have much turnover,” says Jenkins. The sergeant has also proved to be pretty popular down on the strip after he appeared in some “COPS” television programs. While being interviewed for this article, tourists approached him and congratulated him for the way he handled an incident seen on the show.
Despite the high density of some Las Vegas areas, most notably the Strip, the department maintains a sizeable mounted unit. The unit was implemented in July 1998 after a proposal put forth by three uniformed officers, one of whom is Mounted Officer Kelly Korb, a 17-year department veteran. According to Korb, the department-funded unit employs a non-profit support group to help acquire needed equipment, which permits the unit to operate full-time with quality gear. Korb is proud of the fact that the mounted officers handle the same type of calls as regular patrol officers and do everything but transport prisoners. “The horse is our patrol car,” Korb says. “And they are really cost effective. A horse costs about $3,500 and will last 15–20 years; besides, they get better mileage,” she continues. After selection for the unit, mounted officers receive 40 hours of basic training followed by 80 advanced hours of specialized training. The officers patrol in pairs.
The mounted unit has been frequently deployed to help other jurisdictions and maintains two five-horse trailers and a three-horse trailer to move the animals wherever they are needed.
Another specialized uniform unit: the K-9 bureau, one of the oldest continually operating K-9 units in the country. Sixteen officers and 34 dogs are assigned to the unit. The single-purpose dogs’ functions range from general patrol to narcotics and bomb detection. Each officer handles more than one dog, which provides the right “tool” for specific jobs. K-9 officers drive 4x4 Ford Expeditions and roam citywide, going wherever they’re needed. K-9 units work peak nighttime hours because that’s when they’re in demand and because the daytime hours can grow too hot for the dogs’ safety.
The LVMPD SWAT unit, implemented in 1976, is one of the oldest full-time teams in the country. Composed of one lieutenant, three sergeants and 27 officers, the unit is divided into three teams: the Blue and Red teams, each with a sergeant and 12 officers; and the Tactical Support Detail with one sergeant and two officers. The Blue and Red teams serve high-risk warrants, deal with barricaded subjects and hostage situations, and handle dignitary protection. The Tactical Support Detail provides tactical training to the SWAT teams and other LVMPD officers, and it conducts an intermediate-level SWAT school once a year attended by agencies from around the world.
A crisis-negotiations officer also works with SWAT; this officer coordinates the efforts of 23 negotiators, including both commissioned officers and civilians, and three local psychologists.
And as you might expect, the LVMPD SWAT unit is well equipped, especially when it comes to specialized vehicles. In addition to two Peacekeepers, two V-100s, a large utility truck and a rescue vehicle already on hand, the unit has a large mobile-command center, a remote-controlled robot and two more Peacekeepers on order. One of the new Peacekeepers will have radiation-detection capability.
Search & Rescue
Given the size and topography of Clark County, it’s not surprising the LVMPD employs an active search-and-rescue unit. What may be a revelation to some, though, is the frequency and extent of the rescue missions. The LVMPD Search and Rescue unit is probably one of the most capable and well-trained in the country. Composed of a combination of specially trained helicopter pilots, officers and more than 50 volunteers, the unit is always on call to address rescues throughout the county. All members have completed specialized training including high-angle rope rescues, desert survival, tracking, emergency medicine and helicopter operations. Many have also completed specialized swiftwater rescue training. Some of the terrain around Las Vegas is as tough as you will find anywhere, and the weather can vary from extreme heat to bitter cold. Seven officers form the unit’s command structure. Selected from experienced field officers, they respond first to requests for assistance and get more than 150 such calls every year. Although many rescues are resolved quickly, some require a complete mobilization of volunteers. In these situations, the officers serve as the incident commander and coordinate the rescue effort.
Support from the air is available to LVMPD officers virtually around the clock thanks to the air unit, which is based with the search-and-rescue unit in a large hangar and office unit at Las Vegas International Airport. The unit’s rescue capabilities are legendary. The terrain around Las Vegas can be unforgiving for an inexperienced pilot; only the most experienced and proven are used for complex backcountry rescues, which can feature high altitude, temperature extremes, rugged terrain and pulling injured people out of deep chasms.
The unit’s fleet consists of four MD500 helicopters and two Bell HH-1H Iroquois helicopters. All of the pilots are commissioned officers, and each of them started their career as a patrol officer.
Crime Scene Investigations
The LVMPD CSI technicians are responsible for gathering all types of evidence in the field and packaging it for the department crime lab, a full-service facility capable of processing DNA workups, footwear and latent print comparisons, and serology. The only tests sent outside are those requiring electron microscopy. A new lab currently under construction will provide new and expanded processing capabilities. Ten CSI personnel have been using digital cameras for crime scenes, and enough equipment is on order to equip all 43 CSI field technicians. The new kits will include a Canon SLR (EOS 20D), specialized flash and support lenses. Once that occurs, the only film usage will be occasional 4x5 camera use for items needing a lot of detail and sizable enlargement. Digital has also made it into the lab where copy work is done using a scanner and digital camera.
LVMPD has approximately 300 investigators with more than 100 civilian support personnel assigned to tasks ranging from property and violent crimes to specialized units like the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, the Sex Offender Apprehension Program and the Southwestern Identity Fraud Task Force. Problems with auto theft prompted the department to form the Vehicle Investigations Project for Enforcement and Recovery Task Force (VIPER), in 1999, which is an undercover, multi-jurisdictional task force focusing on auto-theft-for-profit cases, primarily organized operations and chop shops.
Unfortunately, Las Vegas has become very attractive to a variety of gangs; there are now approximately 10,000 documented gang members and associates in the county, many moving in from the Los Angeles area. More than 50 detectives and supervisors work the Gang Crimes Section, which is divided into enforcement, investigative, task force, graffiti and intelligence squads.
The level of enthusiasm and pride is evident throughout LVMPD; Korb probably sums it up best: “I love this agency,” she says. “You can’t ask for better support. The different units really help each other. The dogs, helicopters, gang unit, patrol—every unit. There are so many advancement opportunities I can’t even name them all. There’s really a lot of opportunity, and the training is excellent. I am really happy with this department, and I can’t really say enough good things about the people I work with.”
Not surprisingly, Sheriff Bill Young takes a lot of pride in his agency and its personnel. “I’ve seen a lot of changes in Las Vegas and in Metro since my days as a rookie cop in 1979,” says Young. “The size of the city and of our department, the types of crime and criminals which we deal with, and the tools and technology which we use have all changed. The one thing that remains constant—the thing that helps to set Metro apart from other agencies—are the men and women of our department. These are some of the finest individuals that I have ever had the privilege of knowing. They are dedicated and honorable officers, and I am proud to be their sheriff.”
Dale Stockton is the editor of Law Officer.