Safe Neighborhoods press conference

Confiscated firearms are displayed during a Project Safe Neighborhoods news conference by U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme and law enforcement partners in Billings on Wednesday.

The violent crime rate plateaued in Yellowstone County during the first year of a renewed nationwide effort to get “alpha criminals” off the streets, U.S. Attorney for Montana Kurt Alme announced Wednesday.

The county saw 16% and 26% increases, respectively, for the rates of murder, robbery and aggravated assault in the two years before Project Safe Neighborhood began in Yellowstone County.

But in the past year that rate slowed to 1.3%, Alme said at a press conference Wednesday.

“I think we’re targeting the right crimes,” Alme said, when asked what the biggest reason for the curbed violent crime rate was. “A certain percentage of criminals commit the majority of violent crimes, so if you can target these alpha criminals, then you should be able to reduce violent crime.”

Project Safe Neighborhoods, a 2001 initiative resurrected last year by then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, aims to increase collaboration among different law enforcement agencies while targeting the root causes of violent crime. For the program’s effort in Yellowstone County, that root cause is meth.

During the past year, Alme’s office has charged 170 defendants with federal meth trafficking, armed robbery and firearms offenses — the three crimes Alme’s office identified as the best inroads to violent crime locally.

As part of that work, law enforcement has seized 245 pounds of meth, representing nearly 890,000 doses and carrying an estimated street value of $11 million, according to a press release from Alme. They’ve also seized 212 firearms, including 57 semiautomatic assault-style rifles.

Montana’s violent crime rate outpaces most other states in the Northwest, aside from South Dakota, Alme said. That includes states with larger urban centers like Utah and Washington, he noted. 

Hand in hand with efforts to boost arrests and prosecution is an attempt to address the appetite for drugs locally — specifically meth.

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said that second prong of the approach was just as important.

“These guys are awesome at stopping supply,” Twito said, gesturing to the members of law enforcement standing behind him. “ … But we still have a demand out there, and until we tackle that as well, until we partner with the right community partners and really figure that out, we’re not really going to have dramatic impact” on child abuse and neglect cases.

Twito said growing meth abuse has fueled a steep increase in the child removal cases his office handles. The county’s rate of those cases grew 177% between 2014 and 2018.

Yellowstone Substance Abuse Connect Coalition, a group of 55 nonprofits and governmental entities, formed to tackle the substance abuse problem locally and will present initial findings Friday. 

The group’s efforts were kick-started by a $358,000 grant to increase prevention, treatment and diversion. The grant was secured by the Billings Police Department, as the fiduciary for the Eastern Montana high Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force.

“That’s the part that we’re missing,” said Police Chief Rich St. John. “We’re not social workers, but more and more we’re getting pushed into this,” he said, of patrol officers.

Alme applauded federal, state and local law enforcement for their efforts on Project Safe Neighborhood.

Present were representatives from the Drug Enforcement Administration; Homeland Security; U.S. Marshal's Service; Montana Department of Justice; Montana Division of Criminal Investigation; Montana Department of Corrections' probation and parole; Laurel and Billings police departments; Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office; Montana Highway Patrol; the FBI; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

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Reporter Sam Wilson contributed.