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I-Team: Strip pedestrian bridges keep cops busy | News

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I-Team: Strip pedestrian bridges keep cops busy
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LAS VEGAS -- The colorful chaos that unfolds nightly on street corners and sidewalks along the Las Vegas Strip can now be found at a new level, literally and figuratively.

Police officers say they are stretched thin, trying to maintain control as partiers and panhandlers compete for space with tourists who are often awe-struck by the parade of weirdness. Those concerns have now moved upstairs, in a sense, to the pedestrian bridges that traverse the Strip.

The I-Team found out the bridges are much more than conduits for foot traffic.

Those who haven't been out for a stroll on the Strip since the last time the relatives came to town will be in for a surprise. The pedestrian bridges now feature a cavalcade of characters, con artists and criminals rubbing elbows with tourists whose dollars fund government at every level in Nevada. The bridges create special challenges for a police force already straining to keep pace.

“Were you here that night I had a guy dressed up like a penis and a vagina?” Metro Police Sergeant Tom Jenkins said. “I'm talking the full, the whole, and it kind of caught us off guard. I'm like, are you kidding me right now?”

Police officers who work the Strip see it all, everything from the costumed superheroes, pseudo celebrities, musical acts and large dance ensembles with choreographed routines to ubiquitous sleaze merchants and run-of-the-mill drunken nitwits itching for a fight.

Turf wars are common as panhandlers or prostitutes tussle with buskers for prime real estate. Strip fisticuffs inevitably end up on YouTube.

“We have showgirl versus showgirl, Superman versus Batman,” Jenkins said. “We actually took one of the Elvis guys to jail last week cause they got into a fight.”

Take all of that sidewalk craziness, plop it onto an escalator and move it upstairs to an even more confined space and you have the current state of pedestrian bridges.

“Well, it's very congested,” Metro Police Captain Devin Ballard said. “A lot of people like to use these pedestrian bridges as chokepoints to try and sell things to tourists, to quite honestly try to victimize tourists.”

Ballard conceded the bridges have become open air bazaars, venues of crowded chaos where pickpockets and prostitutes get up close and personal with mom and pop tourists and roving partiers. Panhandlers also camp out on the bridges, which have become not only their living rooms but also their bathrooms. Officers can wake them up but cannot make them move on.

While at one of the bridges, Ballard said: “They don't bring tents but they bring a lot of belongings, like right behind us.”

I-Team: “Can you tell them to move along?”

Ballard: “No. We can't.”

It's a carny atmosphere with a bearded lady holding a live snake, and a guy who charges $20 to let tourists kick him in the privates. But the bridges also showcase more serious crime, including a fatal stabbing, shootings, fights and gang banger activity. Some people have fallen from the bridges while others toss objects at pedestrians below.

Unlicensed vendors sell everything from bootleg compact discs to sex to booze. There's a pushcart packed with beer and a persistent entrepreneur trying to sell dope.

Metro Police is using technology to keep pace. Inside Metro's Fusion Center Metro Officer Joseph Marshall watched his video screen as a team of con artists ran an old scam, the three-card monte.

“See this guy here?” Marshall said. “He's a lookout. He's looking for cops.”

The con game involves shills who pretend to win money, attracting potential marks who can lose thousands of dollars in minutes.

Metro Captain Chris Jones and his team in the Fusion Center watch a battery of cameras that are focused on the Strip and its bridges. They point their cameras at known problem areas. When they see an operation like the card scam, they direct Strip officers to the scene.

“Not a day goes by that does not occur,” Jones said. “Not an hour goes by that that does not occur.”

But it still boils down to lack of manpower to properly police the economic engine for the entire state.

“A tourist comes down here,” Ballard said. “They have a certain idea of what it will be like, and when they come and walk these bridges and see homeless panhandlers, CD hustlers, water vendors … I think that's not what they expect.”

One proposal Metro is discussing is an ordinance that would allow police to tell people to move along, at least on pedestrian bridges. Local officials have had trouble crafting laws to keep the sidewalks free of impediments. Other cities with such laws have faced constitutional challenges.

The only solution known to work is funding more cops, but local elected officials haven't shown an appetite to do just that.

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