I-Team: Securing the Strip: Does What Happens Here, Hurt Here? - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Securing the Strip: Does What Happens Here, Hurt Here?

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LAS VEGAS -- A recent rash of violent incidents along the Las Vegas Strip has spurred Sheriff Doug Gillespie to beef up the police presence in the area over the past few weekends, and he has other ambitious plans in mind for getting troublemakers under control.

The Strip is the economic engine for the entire state -- anything that threatens the well-being of the Strip can generate ripples that are felt in every home in the community. Some are now asking if we are reaping what we've sown, whether trouble on the Strip is something that Las Vegas has invited.

And you don't have to be a cop to know that something has changed out there. The crowd is younger, rowdier, and drunker than ever before. The vendors and hustlers are so rampant on the sidewalks that it is become a cheap, carny atmosphere in places.

Nearly every night, at some point along the Strip, violent encounters occur and another fight hits YouTube and quickly goes global. Beleaguered Las Vegas Metro officers get into tussles with drunken idiots, yet no matter how many busloads of malcontents are hauled away, no matter how many cameras record the gang fights and gunfights, the parade of hustlers, derelicts and assorted thugs never seems to end. It's so bad, even super heroes like Batman are at risk.

Las Vegas has always been a tolerant place, happy to see visitors let their hair down. But those who are out there every night say something has changed.

"If you haven't been down here in the last five years, you'd be shocked how it's changed," said Metro Sgt. T.J. Jenkins with the Homeland Security Division.

"From 10 at night until six in the morning, it doesn't stop," said Metro Sgt. Mike Ford.

Last fall, Sheriff Gillespie took steps to re-establish order on the Strip. He created a new squad headed by Sgt. Ford, which focused entirely on assorted troublemakers. He also unleashed Sgt. Jenkins' homeland security team to patrol the corridor in search of more insidious threats. And it has helped, statistically, anyway. Serious crime along the Strip is down, but a series of high profile deaths, combined with perceptions that the carny atmosphere is out of control, present a very serious challenge.

"Three tourists killed in a 10 day period on the Las Vegas Strip is just an ugly story, no matter how you package it," said former Clark County Sheriff Bill Young.

Former Sheriff Young, now a corporate security chief for a casino company, sees the issues from multiple perspectives. The biggest difference, he says, is the type of people now drawn to the Strip, especially on weekends. It is a younger crowd, for sure, many here for the wild nightclub scene as opposed to shows or casino action. And then there are the legions of local scufflers who come prey on them.

"You certainly see a lot of people there for the sole reason of trying to pick those people clean, one way or another -- solicit them, sell something to them, steal something from them, harass them in some cases," said Young.

Some gaming properties have encouraged the Tijuana frat party atmosphere by building bars right up to the sidewalks, selling oversized novelty drinks to people for whom getting completely hammered is the whole point.

"In a way, it is reaping what we sow. We put a lot of money into promoting Las Vegas into a place where you can party, where you can be yourself. And that is an unfortunate element in that for some people, being themselves means they are going to be violent," said David Schwartz, director of UNLV's Center for Gaming Research. "There is definitely a feeling among a lot of people have that have been coming here for a long time that it is getting worse."

Schwartz does not put the blame on the "what happens here, stays here" ad campaign, but thinks it is related. The hugely-successful campaign helped the town bounce back from 9/11, but, over time, the message has been distorted.

"People interpret this to mean, 'I can do whatever I want,'" said Schwartz.

"We push, 'what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas' so much that people think it's an adult playground and they can do whatever they want. The cops are like the cops in the Hangover," said Sgt. Ford.

The Hangover Effect -- so many tourists seem to have that experience in mind when they get here.

If you dare to ask the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor's Authority whether their ads have contributed, even a little, to what the Strip has become, the reaction is swift and harsh, "Any attempt to connect the (recent) violence with an ad campaign or other marketing efforts... is absurd," they say in a statement.

Bill Young is a fan of the ads, but thinks there has been a fundamental change in the collective character on the sidewalks. Whatever the cause, he says, we had better get a handle on it.

"That Strip is the most important piece of real estate to the state of Nevada that there is, and when it gets a little blip and revenue goes down out there, look what happens to all of us," he said.

Young mentioned two examples worth considering -- violence against foreign tourists in Florida back in the 90's was so widely reported in Europe that it caused a 10 year dip in tourism in Florida. Right now in Mexico, the perception of drug violence along the border has made a ghost town out of resort cities far removed from the trouble.

Every YouTube video of a fight or shootout on the Strip carries great risk for the town. We can't blame the trouble on any ad campaign, but maybe there's a way to send out another kind of message.

All this week at 5 p.m., the 8 News NOW I-Team is looking at different aspects of this challenge, including ideas from the sheriff on how to turn it around.

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