The 15 people seated around the table at United Way’s West End office and four more on the phone represented diverse organizations who have come together to substantially reduce drug abuse and violence in Yellowstone County.

Members of the recently formed Substance Abuse Connect aim to reduce the methamphetamine crisis and the serious lack of safe, affordable housing that have trapped so many individuals and families in cycles of addiction, unemployment, poverty, crime, incarceration, release and repeat. People in drug treatment and recovery struggle to find any housing, let alone drug-free housing.

The tentacles of drug abuse and violence damage our community in many ways. For example:

  • In a focus group with youth who had dropped out, the common denominator was substance abuse, said Brenda Koch, executive director for Billings Public Schools.
  • St. Vincent Healthcare and Billings Clinic see babies born with illegal drugs in their tiny bodies.
  • Alternatives Inc. and state probation officers deal every day with people whose criminal behavior is related to substance abuse.
  • Grandparents are raising grandchildren and great-grandparents are raising great-grandchildren because of parental drug abuse leading to child abuse and neglect, noted Al Ward, president of AARP Montana and chair of the Montana Crime Prevention Association.

Substance Abuse Connect, coordinated by Kristin Lundgren of United Way, has a common purpose with Project Safe Neighborhoods, a violent crime reduction initiative launched by U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme in March. The law enforcement initiative has resulted in 49 arrests so far, but Alme recognizes that cutting crime and drug abuse for the long term requires help from the whole community.

Substance Abuse Connect already has a steering committee of volunteers including Lundgren, Alme, Ward, Koch, District Judge Jessica Fehr, County Attorney Scott Twito, Jon Bennion of the Montana attorney general’s office, Lenette Kosovich of Rimrock, Mike Chavers of Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch, Zoe Bernard of the Montana Addictive and Mental Disorders Division, representatives of Billings Clinic, St. Vincent, RiverStone Health, state probation, Alternatives Inc. and the Mental Health Center.

One key entity not yet on the steering committee is the city of Billings. We expect and encourage the city to actively participate.

We commend every organization and every individual who has given time and attention to these crime reduction and community building projects. Several grant applications are awaiting action. So far the law enforcement portion, Project Safe Neighborhoods, has been running on cooperation, not grants.

As of early August, Project Safe Neighborhoods accounted for arrests of 49 suspects for meth trafficking, armed robbery and felons in possession of firearms.

These cases are being prosecuted through the joint efforts of virtually every law enforcement agency with jurisdiction in the county: Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office, Billings Police Department, Laurel Police Department, Montana Highway Patrol, Montana Division of Criminal Investigation, U.S. Marshal’s Service, Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Drug Enforcement Administration and Montana probation and parole.

Four months doesn’t make a trend, but statistics are encouraging. In the past four months, the incidence of violent crime (aggravated assault, armed robbery and murder) has decreased nearly 15 percent compared with the same months of 2017 and 2016, Alme said. Violent crime decreased in the second quarter this year, for the first time in three years.

Billings may be getting a reputation that it’s “too hot right now” for drug traffickers, Alme said. The word is out that drug dealers with guns will do federal time, which means serving out a sentence without parole.

How can average citizens help?

“If they see a crime, report it,” Alme said. “If they use (drugs), get help. There is help out there. Support the work of all these organizations that are working together to comprehensively address this problem in our community.”

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