David Schwartz read off the headlines of a Las Vegas newspaper Wednesday afternoon in quick succession; police were arresting suspects and investigating robberies and a shooting, but he paused to read further into the murder of a professor he knew.

“What you see about Las Vegas on television looks really safe, but if you look at the Police Department website, you see there are areas with crime,” he said.

Las Vegas and Atlantic City have been compared for decades as the nation’s two premier casino destinations, including when it comes to public safety. According to FBI data, Atlantic City had almost double the violent crime rate of Las Vegas in 2017. However, while there’s historical context for comparing the two cities, residents and pundits aren’t taking into account geography, tourism and income levels — all things that make it an apples-to-oranges comparison, experts say.

Carlos Figueroa, 42, a professional gambler who lives and works in both cities, said that while he has never been afraid to walk down the street in either place, there’s definitely a “bad spin” that affects the perception of crime in Atlantic City.

Atlantic City Crime Data 2

Year Violent Crime Rate per 1,000 Nonviolent Crime Rate per 1,000 Murder
1990 38.1 372.6 14
1989 34.5 397.8 15
1991 38.0 366.7 15
1992 34.1 325.6 8
1993 35.4 279.0 11
1994 28.0 227.6 9
1995 26.5 263.8 15
1996 24.3 263.1 11
1997 22.1 255.6 12
1998 18.5 219.9 14
1999 16.8 221.5 5
2000 13.4 172.5 11
2001 15.5 163.9 7
2002 18.5 137.4 5
2003 15.5 134.5 5
2004 17.5 125.8 5
2005 19.0 121.6 9
2006 20.4 112.3 18
2007 22.2 96.6 7
2008 16.9 73.8 11
2009 21.3 83.0 11
2010 20.7 89.8 11
2011 17.5 80.3 13
2012 17.9 75.6 18
2013 17.7 74.7 3
2014 13.7 73.9 6
2015 15.9 75.6 7
2016 12.5 58.8 12

“There’s always going to be a negative connotation to that because Vegas has more status; it’s more grand,” he said. “It’s much bigger. Atlantic City has its own niche.”

Tourists may feel unsafe walking on Pacific Avenue compared to Las Vegas’ Strip because of the difference in police presence as well as the many residents who live close to casinos, which doesn’t happen in Vegas, he said.

“The average person that goes to Vegas doesn’t know about the street crime that happens,” Figueroa said. “You don’t see the druggies on the Strip because police kick them out.”

Schwartz, who spent over two decades in Atlantic City before living in Las Vegas for the past 18 years, said both cities have their challenges when it comes to public safety, especially when it comes to tourism.

“They’re both major, metropolitan areas,” the associate vice provost for faculty affairs at the University of Nevada Las Vegas said. “Like any metropolitan area, there is crime that happens there.”

Looking at the numbers on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report paints a negative picture of Atlantic City. In 2017, the resort had a violent crime rate of 11 per 1,000 people, while Las Vegas came in at a rate of 6 per 1,000. Looking back to 2007, Atlantic City has a higher violent crime rate each year, with some years almost double.

Anthony Marino, a retired South Jersey Transportation Authority analyst and adjunct faculty member at Stockton University, takes issue with pundits who sensationalize the crime rate without taking tourists into consideration.

“It’s tourism of any nature,” he explained. “What it does is it presents a target population for a lot of petty theft and a target for violent crime.”

In 2017, Marino estimates, there were 24.1 million visit-trips into the resort. And although large numbers of tourists can make an environment ripe for crime, they aren’t often counted when calculating rate.

If tourists and daily commuters were included, Marino argued, the crime rate would be lower.

Not taking tourists into consideration is also a sticking point for Tom Gilbert, former commander of the Atlantic City Tourism District. The district covers the many non-residential areas of the resort around the casinos, the Boardwalk, the convention center and Bader Field.

“All those days when you’re bringing all those people into the city and they’re ebbing back out,” Gilbert said, citing the annual airshow and other events that drive visitors into the city as examples. “There’s no way to get credit for those successes.”

The two cities have had similar approaches to public safety, he explained, like the surveillance center, cameras and messaging screens on the Boardwalk.

But that’s where the comparison ends for him, saying it is “problematic” to use the crime stats to make a straight comparison.

There also is a lingering perception that Atlantic City is unsafe, Marino said, due to the resort’s many vacant lots and abandoned buildings.

“You never see the real Las Vegas that lurks away of the Strip,” he said. “All you see are these glistening casinos for a couple miles.”

Even though the two cities are so different, there’s a reason residents and pundits try to draw a comparison between the two.

“The only other place that had legal gambling in the United States was Las Vegas,” said Levi Fox, owner of Jersey Shore Tours. “Up through really the 1980s, there would have been a natural comparison because there really wasn’t any other comparison to make in an American city.”

Legislators even argued about ways to make sure Atlantic City didn’t fall into the hands of the mob by legalizing gambling when it became the “Vegas of the east,” said Fox.

For Gilbert, Atlantic City is an anomaly since it isn’t defined as a resort community or a major city in New Jersey. But when it comes down to it, it’s just too different from Las Vegas to compare.

“The Las Vegas model was different. It was designed to be a destination point,” Gilbert said. “I always looked at Atlantic City as a small town with big buildings.”


People are talking about how to reinvent Atlantic City. Share your thoughts by joining the conversation below. For more on this topic as well as others, please visit our Reinventing AC project page at ReinventingAC.com

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Contact: 609-272-7241 mbilinski@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressMollyB

Staff Writer

My beat is public safety, following police and crime. I started in January 2018 here at the Press covering Egg Harbor and Galloway townships. Before that, I worked at the Reading Eagle in Reading, Pa., covering crime and writing obituaries.

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