The violent crime rate in Atlantic City is higher than in other major casino cities, and the rate increased as casinos cut spending on security during the past five years.
Last week, a fatal carjacking at Trump Taj Mahal Casino’s parking garage — the second one in 16 months — brought concerns about tourist safety. But those concerns had existed before the carjacking and played a role in the creation of the Tourism District.
Homicides — including the killing of 28-year-old Sunil Rattu, of Old Bridge, Middlesex County last Sunday — are more commonplace in Atlantic City than any other major casino market except Detroit, according to 2010 crime statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Atlantic City has seen 12 homicides in 2011.
Those statistics, however, do not consider that the crime rate is based on the 39,000-person population, rather than the 29 million visitors the city sees each year. That point is part of the argument the Police Department — and some researchers — have made for years.
“Atlantic City is safe,” Atlantic City Police Department Deputy Chief Henry White said.
The city’s violent crime rate in 2010 was 19.7 incidents per 1,000 people, a 6 percent increase from the 18.5-per-1,000 rate in 2005. The rate peaked at 21.6 in 2007 and was lowest — 16.6 — in 2008, FBI Uniform Crime Reports show. The statistics represent offenses reported to law enforcement agencies and are compiled by the FBI; rape, murder, robbery and aggravated assault are included in the violent crime total.
Detroit does have a higher rate of motor vehicle theft, aggravated assault and burglary than Atlantic City, but overall the New Jersey city is highest among the top-ranked gaming markets in the U.S., an analysis by The Press of Atlantic City of 2010 FBI Uniform Crime Report Statistics found.
What’s not clear is whether that crime is occurring in the casinos or on city streets; unlike many other cities, Atlantic City police lack the technology to map crimes. That should change within the next year with a $3.5 million grant by the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to improve the department’s technology.
But in Las Vegas, a city with 36 times the population and less than half the violent crime rate of Atlantic City, it’s far easier for police — and the public — to know when and where crimes are occurring.
White said the lower rate in Las Vegas is misleading because its year-round population is so much larger.
The influx of tourists in Atlantic City each year is also more dramatic: more than 29 million people visited Atlantic City — more than 700 times its residential population — in 2010, when Las Vegas attracted 37 million tourists, or 26 times the residency there.
Although the tourism factor probably will always somewhat skew crime data, crime-mapping and analytic software at least let police pinpoint and predict crime.
Las Vegas police offer a publicly accessible crime-mapping system that charts more than a dozen types of crimes committed in the city during the previous 60 days within 200 feet of a given address.
Atlantic City officers and the general public will go without that for at least another year before mapping and other police technology improvements are fully implemented.
“You want to get ahead of the curve on trends and aspects of crime to find out where you’re best positioned to keep something from happening,” Tourism District Commander Tom Gilbert said. “It’s not just chasing numbers around to plot on the map what already happened.”
In the meantime, the lack of specific data leaves the resort’s reputation to perception, shaped by headlines such as last week’s carjacking and overall crime stats that don’t tell the full story.
What those stats do show is that Atlantic City’s property crime rate has fallen 32 percent — from 111 to 75 incidents per 1,000 — during the past five years, but still was surpassed only by St. Louis’s 77 per 1,000. Property crimes include burglary, theft and arson.
Atlantic City’s violent crime rate of 19.7 in 2010 surpassed previously top-ranked Detroit’s 18.9 rate.
That happened amid drastic cuts in casino security and in public safety, although many of the public jobs have been restored.
In Atlantic City, there are 24 percent fewer security jobs at casino properties — as with gaming jobs overall — than five years ago, Casino Control Commission statistics show.
The local gaming industry’s annual revenue has since dropped 29 percent from the $5.02 billion pulled in during 2005, totaling just $3.57 billion in 2010, those numbers show.
Less-effective security means fewer crimes are deterred on the casino property or in its adjacent parking facilities, said principal security consultant Ralph Witherspoon of Witherspoon Security Consulting of Cleveland, Ohio.
And that could strain police.
“Security attempts to deter, prevent crime,” he said. “Once they’re at the point where they’ve drawn the gun and started the crime, it’s no longer a security matter. It’s a police matter. (The outcome) is based on a lot of factors, but probably it isn’t going to end well. At the very best, a city car chase careening down city streets with gunfire.”
Casino workers have noticed, too, UNITE-HERE Local 54 President Bob McDevitt said.
“It’s not widespread panic, but they notice the lack of security,” McDevitt said. “It just creates an unsafe situation.”
The drop in security personnel didn’t make sense to McDevitt for several reasons.
During the past three years, he’s noticed more disciplinary actions against bartenders and cocktail waitresses for failing to identify underage drinkers who are already gambling. In the past, guards caught most minors before they stepped onto the floor, he said.
Less security also increases the risk for crimes — including major tragedies such as the recent carjacking that make news headlines and compromise the health of the local hospitality industry, he said.
“If the city is supposed to create a safer environment, I think the casinos should be obligated to create a safer environment inside their own properties, and that’s clearly not what’s going on,” McDevitt said.
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|Major casino markets in the U.S., 2010|
|Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports|