When U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme announced a renewed focus on stopping violent crime, he and other law enforcement leaders were right to talk about a comprehensive approach that is more than arrests and prison sentences.
Project Safe Neighborhood, a nationwide initiative that involves federal, state and local agencies started in Billings just over two months ago. Last week, Alme announced 17 arrests on federal and state charges of trafficking meth and heroin and illegal possession of firearms. State cases included a man and woman charged with endangering the welfare of a child and dealing an array of drugs: meth, cocaine, mushrooms, marijuana, hashish and several types of narcotic pills.
Most suspects are from Billings. Three men arrested for meth trafficking are from California. U.S. District Court documents allege that large quantities of meth were hauled to Billings from California and that supplies of heroin were transported weekly from Denver to Billings.
One Billings man charged with trafficking meth and illegal possession of a firearm, “admitted that he was a drug dealer and the shotguns were used for scaring people from trying to rip him off or rob his house during deals,” according to a U.S. District Court document.
A second part of the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative is to support methamphetamine substance abuse prevention and treatment. Montana Attorney General Tim Fox is promoting prevention and treatment as part of the state’s response to the meth epidemic. Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, who also was in attendance, started a program that gives certain first-time drug offenders a chance to clear their records if they complete addiction treatment and stay out of trouble.
Statistics show the incidence of violent crime increasing in Montana and in Billings since hitting a low in 2010. Meth figures prominently in the Montana trend: For example, the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation had 232 meth cases in 2016 — more than triple the number they worked in 2010. Back in 2009, 10 percent of the parolee/probationer urine samples submitted by the Department of Corrections were positive for meth; in 2016 testing, 51 percent were meth positive.
Child abuse and neglect cases have soared with the majority involving parental substance abuse. The most frequently abused drug in these cases is meth.
People using meth are more likely to be involved in violent crime because the drug tends to make people aggressive and paranoid. Meth traffickers and users tend to have guns, a fact confirmed by the number of firearms recovered by the Project Safe Neighborhoods arrests.
“To make headway against meth will take coordination,” Alme told The Gazette.
At a press conference last week in Billings, Alme and Fox said they hope that success will be measured by a drop in violent crime. Child neglect and abuse cases, which have increased along with drug-related crime, also would be expected to drop if drug offenses are reduced.
Billings and Laurel police, Yellowstone County sheriff’s deputies, Montana DCI, Highway Patrol, Department of Corrections and several federal agencies cooperated in these Project Safe Neighborhoods cases. This type of joint operation certainly is the best use of public resources when the focus is on thwarting violent crimes and reducing the supply of illegal drugs flowing into our communities.
Law enforcement must be comprehensive: addressing both illegal drug supply and demand to make a measurable difference in the drug-related crime that has been growing in Billings and throughout Montana. The solution isn’t locking everybody up. Criminals who profit from destructive drug addictions should be incarcerated, but addicts must be motivated to complete treatment, stay sober and get legitimate jobs.