August 15, 2007 / 8:23 PM / 13 years ago

FEATURE-Casino crimes highlight Vegas private security role

LAS VEGAS, Aug 15 (Reuters) - In July, a possibly suicidal man stood above the casino floor at the 2,024-room New York, New York hotel in Las Vegas and fired 16 shots from a semiautomatic gun, wounding four people.

This month, a dispute over a woman at a nightclub in the famed Caesar’s Palace hotel ended with two men shot. In May, an explosive device in the parking lot of another Strip hotel, the Luxor, left a Mexican fast-food employee dead.

During each of these incidents, private hotel security heavily supplemented a local police force struggling to keep up with a rapidly growing population in one of the world’s most prominent tourist destinations.

“They are definitely an asset to us,” said Sheriff Douglas Gillespie, who oversees the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. “In our resort corridor we could not police to the level that we do without the assistance and cooperation of hotel security.”

“They are the first responders.”

Back in the days when organized crime ran much of Las Vegas, hotel security meted out its own version of justice, sometimes beating casino cheaters and undesirables. Times have changed in the city’s corporate era, Gillespie said.

“I’ve been in the department now 27 years in November, and I can tell you their level of professionalism and commitment to keeping the resort corridor safe has increased immensely over the years,” Gillespie said.

Private security guards, who do everything from patrol vast casino floors to monitor surveillance videos, dwarf the numbers of city police. Las Vegas employs 2,400 police officers, compared with some 6,500 private security guards, Gillespie said.

DIFFERENT RULES

The rules differ for security guards because they are privately employed and therefore not subject to many requirements that police follow such as notifying arrested people they have the right to remain silent.

“They don’t have search-and-seizure issues,” said police officer Scott Phillips. “They can grab the bag and look at it.”

Some guests have accused private security of going too far. A honeymooning couple staying at Treasure Island sued in 2005, saying four security guards entered their room as they were consummating the marriage.

They eventually won $10,000 in arbitration, said their lawyer, Melanie Porter, now a deputy attorney general in Carson City, Nevada.

“This is such a one-industry town that there are incidents in which lines are crossed,” said Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Las Vegas. “The cozy relationship between the private security and the police can cause problems.”

Major Strip hotel owners, including MGM Mirage (MGM.N), Caesar’s Palace (part of Harrah’s HET.N), the Venetian (part of Las Vegas Sands Corp. (LVS.N)) and Station Casinos (STN.N) declined requests to interview their heads of security.

“They have civil liability governing what they can and can’t do,” said Steven Martinez, special agent in charge of the Las Vegas FBI office. “My understanding is that they use trespass law to pretty much neutralize anybody who is causing a ruckus or causing problems for them.

“They can detain and physically remove people from the property. By that time you usually have a response from Las Vegas Metro (Police).”

UNDERCOVER PATROL

Police on the streets of Las Vegas say the most common crimes against tourists inside hotels and along the Strip include pickpocketing and car theft.

City police tour the area on bicycles to avoid heavy traffic, donning bullet-proof vests even on summer days when the temperature reaches 110 F (43 C). Undercover teams also wander through crowds outside and inside casino hotels.

When a reporter joined a recent undercover foot patrol, police first arrested two illegal Mexican immigrants selling water for $1 a bottle. They handcuffed the vendors to turn them over eventually to immigration authorities.

Two other men seen as troublemakers were detained and told to get out of town. The tough talk failed — they were spotted again just two days later.

The undercover patrol later followed a man at the MGM Grand Casino who was wandering among slot machines looking to cash in on neglected winnings, which is a crime.

Even widespread video surveillance does not deter all thieves.

“There are hundreds of people there and you happen to be a tourist that’s unsuspecting and a pickpocket happens to be there ... . He’s got all this natural cover around him protecting him from security and from the cameras,” said police Detective Brian Mildebrandt.

Federal officials work closely with hotel security to prepare against terrorism, although the only major recent alert — for New Year’s Eve 2003 — turned out to be a false alarm.

“Is Las Vegas a target? I think just by the iconic nature of what Las Vegas represents, we sure think that it is highly vulnerable to attack,” local FBI chief Martinez said.

The recent incidents notwithstanding, officials say visitors to the gambling capital should feel no undue worry.

“You are as safe, you know, here coming to visit a large tourist destination as any other city in the world,” said Sheriff Gillespie.

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