Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies will be stepping up arrests and prosecutions of violent crime, illegal firearms possession and meth-related drug crimes in Billings, the U.S. Attorney for the state of Montana told a crowd of police officials and media representatives during a press conference Monday.
U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme announced the recent arrests of 17 people in connection with a "reinvigorated" Project Safe Neighborhoods — a federal initiative launched in 2001 to combat gun violence.
In October, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed the U.S. Attorneys throughout the country to begin developing state-level programs that would bring together law enforcement and prosecutors at federal, state and local levels to collaborate on efforts to reduce violent crime in their states. In a press release, Sessions had announced the initiative as "the centerpiece of our crime reduction strategy."
On Monday, Alme said that the 17 recent arrests were the early products of Montana's program, which officially launched in March.
"The directive was especially appropriate for Montana, because according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, violent crime in Montana has increased by almost 35 percent since a low in 2010 through 2016," Alme said.
Also speaking during the press conference were Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, Billings Police Department Chief Rich St. John and Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito. During their remarks, all four speakers pointed to an increase in meth abuse as the primary driver behind a violent crime rate that has increased by 75 percent in Billings in the past seven years.
"Violent crime has reached epidemic numbers in Montana, and Billings is not exempt," St. John said. "The numbers and statistics that we're talking about here are about people — people that are being hurt, killed, by many violent offenders involved in some way with drugs and many times using a firearm — a problem exacerbated by the methamphetamine situation here lately."
Montana's iteration of Project Safe Neighborhoods will target arrests and prosecutions of meth trafficking, armed robberies and felony firearms possession.
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Part of the program's strategy includes coordinating prosecution of crimes that fall into the three categories law enforcement officials are prioritizing, Alme said. Higher-level drug dealers and criminals illegally in possession of firearms will more likely face prosecution at the federal level, where penalties imposed are often stiffer.
But Fox noted that the state will play a role in directing lower-level offenders to Montana's drug courts and stepped up access to substance abuse prevention and education.
"If we can get early intervention and get people out of this cycle as early as possible, we can hopefully do a lot of good there, but there will always be a need for law enforcement, obviously," he said.
Speaking after the press conference, both Alme and Fox said they hope to measure the success of the program by seeing a corresponding drop in violent crime rates in the community, and Fox added that other metrics like childhood abuse and neglect cases will also see a drop in the coming years.
Alme said he believes the revamped Project Safe Neighborhoods allows law enforcement officials at the state level to adopt strategies that are more geared to the specific issues driving violent crime in their communities.
"It seems to be a universal consensus that meth is the prime driver," Alme said. "What's driving violence in the South Side of Chicago or East St. Louis is different from what's driving the violence in Billings, and we appreciated that flexibility."
While it is the first Montana city in which the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative is being rolled out, Billings won't be the last, Alme said. His office is also working with local and state officials to focus on rising violent crime in Missoula, and also plans to target the six Indian reservations in Montana over which the federal government has primary jurisdiction, he said.