Starting in January, Billings will see a renewed effort to crack down on property crime.
The Billings Police Department is forming a five-member street crimes unit dedicated solely to “quality-of-life crimes” like burglaries, vandalism, vehicle break-ins and thefts.
Billings has seen a steady uptick in property crimes over the past few years, from 5,401 in 2014 to 6,093 in 2016. That includes burglary, larceny, arson and vehicle theft, which has increased significantly in recent years, from 616 in 2014 to 820 in 2016.
A lot of property crimes have no leads on possible suspects and go unsolved, said Lt. Neil Lawrence of the BPD.
Billings had a street crimes unit back in the 1990s but shut it down after a few years due to staffing shortages, Lawrence said. There had been talk since then about reconvening the unit, and now that the department is fully staffed — minus one position after a detective retired this fall — it can do so.
Lawrence said the unit will aim to deter property crime in Billings.
“But the main focus will be making arrests and getting those types of individuals to court, hopefully for convictions,” Lawrence said.
The move will take pressure off patrol officers and detectives. Currently both do follow-up work on property crimes, with officers handling more individual incidents and detectives tackling the trends, like a string of car thefts at the start of winter last year.
Lawrence said follow-up work is always done when information about a suspect exists. Officers may take a photo of the suspect to the jail or to sheriff’s deputies to see if anyone can identify the person. Or if they have the suspect's name, they will attempt to make contact with that person.
But if BPD has no information about who might have committed the crime, the report usually gets forwarded to the Crime Prevention Center, where a volunteer will make a report. Most of those cases remain inactive but open, in case a tip comes in later that could help.
Lawrence said the department receives a large volume of reported property crimes without information on suspects, but he declined to specify what percentage of property crimes go unsolved, saying it would require a public records request to obtain the numbers. He declined to provide an estimate.
BPD is interviewing 16 applicants for three patrol officer positions. A detective sergeant’s position is already filled, and one detective has applied to be the fifth member of the team. The jobs typically draw a higher volume of applicants.
“It was a detail that officers were always interested in working,” Lawrence said.