Close to 50 community members gathered Monday night to learn about gang activity in the Billings area and in local schools.
Missoula Police Det. Guy Baker, who lectures on gang awareness and is senior vice president of the Northwest Gang Investigators Association, gave a presentation on the rise and activity of gangs nationwide and in Montana, and how schools and the community can help curb the growth.
“Knowledge is the key when it comes to gang suppression,” he said.
“When it comes to (addressing) these problems, working together is key.”
Baker was invited to Billings School District 2 after some of the high school principals saw his presentation in Helena last year. Brenda Koch, executive director of the district’s east cohort, arranged the visit and set up the community meeting Monday night.
Baker spent Monday and Tuesday mornings addressing district staff.
He explained that the creation and distribution of crack cocaine in the early 1980s instigated much of the gang growth during that decade and into the early 1990s.
Youth of all ethnicities join gangs and many do so seeking acceptance and inclusion and to protect themselves from other gang members, he said.
He encouraged the community to become active in mentoring and reaching out to disaffected youth and to report suspicious activity to local authorities.
When Baker mentioned that gang activity in Billings had significantly dropped over the last few years, he was challenged by members of the audience.
“Is that (statement) politically motivated?” one man asked. “How do we know?”
The man said Billings downplays its gang activity to seem more tourist friendly.
Sgt. Shawn Finnegan of the Billings Police and one its gang experts told the group that gangs were active in Billings but that enforcement tactics have helped to reduce activity.
“I’m very optimistic with what I’ve been seeing,” he said.
Dep. Dave Kenat with the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office said last year that Billings saw 44 drive-by shootings. This year, he said, there hasn’t been one.
Certainly there’s gang activity in the area, he said, “but the problem is still rather minute.”
He encouraged parents to speak regularly with their kids and to be proactive in calling authorities.
“If you have a suspicion, let us know,” he said.