Is the Strip Safe?

How recent violent incidents might have affected perceptions, and what casinos can do to fight back

securitystripSeveral times this year, the Las Vegas Strip has made national news for the wrong reason: crime. There was February’s Maserati-and-guns crash on the Strip that claimed three lives. And recent weeks have brought an attempted Strip carjacking (apparently thwarted when an off-duty Metro officer shot a suspect) and a carjacking at the Flamingo that ended in two deaths.

When tragedy strikes, police and tourism officials are usually quick to stress that these are random events in an otherwise safe city. They point to the fact that crime rates on the Strip have been falling lately (down in 2012 and early 2013) as proof that a Vegas vacation is fundamentally safe. Is this just public relations spin, or do they have a point?

Rick Santoro, a national expert on security who has decades of experience in the casino sector, agrees that Las Vegas is, for the most part, a safe city to visit. “Violent crimes—including acts of sudden violence, robbery and carjacking—are still relatively rare within American casino-and-tourism cities, including Las Vegas,” he says. And carjacking, he notes, is on rise nationwide, not just in Las Vegas.

The sense that the Strip is spinning out of control, then, is more about perception than percentages: Tens of millions of tourists pile into a high-profile, densely inhabited party space each year. When even a “normal” percentage of those people commit crimes, it’s bound to draw attention.

Most safety experts say that having more people around actually means less of a chance of being victimized, because there’s less of a chance for criminals to get away without being caught. But the same density that provides protection from some crimes, like muggings, makes others, such as  pickpocketing, more likely. “There’s a tradeoff,” Santoro says. “You get benefits with saturation, but you also become a target-rich environment. When you have lots of people, with lots of money, you’ll also get predators looking to take advantage of people.”

In the end, the seemingly logical argument that there’s nothing mathematically abnormal about Strip crime is a losing proposition. The Strip, taken in sum, is an $11 billion tourism operation—and perception is reality. So ensuring that the Strip is not only safe but “abnormally” safe remains a priority for everyone from Metro to casino operators. And while it’s impossible to stop all acts of violence, there are things, Santoro says, that police and casinos can do to make the Strip safer and improve public perceptions:

• Make predators uncomfortable by increasing the presence of “highly visible and proactive” uniformed private security and police outside of resort properties, particularly at entrances and exits.

• Have a plainclothes task force observe crowds for potentially predatory behavior—everything from noticing a pickpocket sizing up a score to an intoxicated group becoming unruly—and act quickly to “deter or interrupt” the predator before anyone is hurt.

• Create “situational awareness messaging” at the airport, in taxicabs, and at casinos to help tourists make themselves less of a target to potential predators.

“Tourism-related crime,” Santoro says, “can be effectively reduced through a regional strategy that includes all the stakeholders: owners/operators, police, private security, industry line-level workers and the tourists themselves.”

Ironically, the best way to prevent crime—or even the perception of it—from becoming a problem for the Strip might be to discuss it more openly. By the time a city earns a reputation as unsafe, it may take years to undo the damage. In a world built on fantasy, frankness isn’t always fun. But when it comes to the risks of crime, honesty may truly be the best policy.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.

Do the recent carjackings on the Strip make you concerned about going there? Or do they slide right off your jaded Las Vegan shoulders? Tell us in the comments.