Border war: Vegas police blame lax California sentencing for crime spike

Reeling from an exploding homicide rate, Las Vegas is pointing a finger to the west, where California has implemented two laws easing sentences and parole conditions for prison inmates.

So far this year, Sin City has seen 66 homicides, up from 29 for the same period in 2015. Metro Police Sheriff Joseph Lombardo told the Las Vegas Sun’s editorial board this week the crime spike can be traced to laws passed in neighboring California to shorten prison sentences for criminals deemed nonviolent.

"We have seen individuals directly related to California committing crimes here in substantial numbers," Lombardo said.

Nevada police did not back down after Lombardo’s charge ignited a border war of words.

“Las Vegas, like many large cities in the U.S. is experiencing a rise in crime,” Larry Hadfield, spokesman for the Las Vegas Metro Police Department, told “We are seeing an influx of persons being arrested – or involved in – violent crimes from California. Many of these people have current ties or past affiliations with gangs out of California.”

California Proposition 47, which passed in late 2014, allowed some nonviolent felony sentences, including drug possession and petty theft, to be reduced to misdemeanors. The 2011 California Public Safety Realignment Act transferred some felons deemed nonviolent from state to county jails and reportedly reduced parole times.

Hadfield acknowledged there are no hard statistics proving a direct link between the rise in violent crime in Las Vegas and California’s early-release programs. Overall, the Las Vegas crime rate, also including robberies, home invasions and sexual assaults, is up 22 percent this year.

Sal LaBarbera, retired detective supervisor with the LAPD’s Criminal/Gang Homicide Division, noted that while it is difficult to track, Lombardo does make a sound assumption.

“Many of our murder suspects have connections to Las Vegas,” he said. “It is not unusual for our suspects to flee to Vegas.”

Deputy Chief of the Los Angeles Probation Department Reaver Bingham cautioned against linking rising crime to the legal reforms, but said the 2011 California law could be having a greater impact on Nevada than Proposition 47. Bingham told that between 40 and 50 parolees from Los Angeles alone fled to Las Vegas since the law was signed. He said that due to the efforts of a joint operation those individuals are known to Nevada authorities. To date, 27 have been arrested and either returned to California or now await return.

FBI spokeswoman Bridget Pappas said such cooperation between local police jurisdictions is crucial to “meet the challenges of the current environment.”

Police on the streets of Las Vegas have a better view of what’s going on than criminologists and data crunchers, said retired California-based FBI agent Robert Chacon.

“The Vegas cops are the ones who are out there every night dealing with these people in the streets,” Chacon said. “They know where these people are coming from because they are actually talking to them face-to-face, even the ones they don’t arrest.

“If the street cops are saying they have seen an increase in contacts or arrests from Californians let out under the prop, it is pretty hard to argue that isn’t a cause,” he said.

Yet staunch supporters of California’s efforts to slash prison overcrowding claim that Nevada’s finger-pointing is illogical.

“Prop 47 is based on releasing non-violent criminals so that there is more bed space for the violent ones,” said constitutional attorney George Mull. “It is overkill for authorities to say that we are releasing a ton of violent criminals who are then causing crime rates to rise in Nevada. California over-incarcerates and that costs the taxpayer a lot of money. Prop 47 is a positive step.”

Mark Chaparian, executive director of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, said the answers to Las Vegas’ crime increase must come from within the city and state.

“We can’t control California, but we can take control of what is happening in Nevada,” he said, advocating more police on the streets and the re-establishment of a Las Vegas police gang unit.

Chaparian also said Nevada has decreased its own prison population – estimating that there are around 600 fewer criminals behind bars than a year ago due to cuts. Hatfield acknowledged that the gambling mecca was hit hard by the recession, which drove some of the cuts.

“LVMPD is currently staffed at only 1.7 officers per 1,000 people,” he said. “Las Vegas gets 40 million visitors a year.

“It is a proven police motto that more officers equals less crime,” he said.

Jamie Brennan contributed to this report.