Violent crime increasing in Yellowstone County
BILLINGS – Violent crime in Yellowstone County has increased significantly since COVID-19 appeared in Montana, a trend law enforcement attribute to methamphetamine and domestic violence, federal and local law enforcement officials announced today.
Yellowstone County has had 67 more victims of murder, robbery and aggravated assault this year for the months March through July than there were for the same period in the previous year, almost a 21 percent increase. The crimes include eight murders, more than occurred in all of 2019, along with numerous non-fatal shooting and stabbings. Robberies have also increased 44 percent.
U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme, Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder and Billings Police Chief Rich St. John discussed the increasing violence during a press conference on the Yellowstone County Courthouse Lawn.
“Those who push meth will be caught and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. In addition, those with a firearm after committing domestic violence or receiving a restraining order will be prosecuted federally. I want to thank our federal, state and local law enforcement for confronting this violence in spite of risks from COVID, and our prosecutors and staff for their hard work during this time. Now more than ever, I also urge our community to support our crisis and drug treatment services through Yellowstone Substance Abuse Connect,” U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme said.
"Despite the efforts of our law enforcement we continue to see an increase in violent crime in Billings and Yellowstone County. COVID has added tremendous amounts of stress to this community, including the criminal justice system. We need the public's help. Please watch out for your neighbor, and if you see a crime, report it immediately," Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said.
“Since before the onset of COVID, we have seen a steady uptick in violent crime. Now that COVID has fully affected life in Billings, we continue to see increases, especially in domestic assault and weapons cases. There have been eight murders from March through July. And there was one murder in August. Most all of the homicides have one common denominator, methamphetamine. It continues to drive crime in Billings. We remain committed to work with our partners to aggressively pursue, investigate, and arrest offenders. COVID is a distraction, but it will not deter us from the very important work of keeping the community safe," Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said.
“Our jail may be crowded, but we will always make room for those who belong in jail," Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said. "I would just like to remind everyone that the Yellowstone County Detention Facility is open for business. Law enforcement officers in our community remain committed to investigating, arresting and prosecuting the violent criminals in our community. This would include those who continue to sell the drugs that are plaguing our community," Sheriff Linder added.
The law enforcement officials explained that both meth dealing and use have contributed to the increase in violent crime. A July report by Millennium Health showed that since March, positive meth urinalysis tests in Montana have increased almost 34 percent. The nationwide increase for positive meth tests is almost 20 percent. The report also found that nearly half of all Americans believe COVID-19 is harming their mental health.
In response to previous increases in meth-related violent crime in Yellowstone County, in 2018, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, together with federal, state, and local law enforcement reinvigorated Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN), a U.S. Department of Justice initiative to reduce violent crime.
Since PSN began in Yellowstone County, 270 individuals have been charged with meth distribution, armed robbery and firearms offenses in federal court, 333 pounds of meth and 343 firearms have been seized, including 78 semi-automatic rifles. In addition, the U.S. Marshal’s Service’s Violent Offender Task Force has arrested 1,334 offenders through July.
The officials also urged support for expanding drug prevention and treatment programs through the community plan created earlier this year by Yellowstone Substance Abuse Connect, a coalition of non-profit and governmental organizations working to reduce the demand for meth.
PSN Yellowstone County’s partners include the U.S. Attorney’s Office; Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office; Montana Department of Justice’s Prosecution Services Division, Highway Patrol and the Division of Criminal Investigation; Montana Department of Correction’s Adult Probation and Parole Division; Billings and Laurel police departments; Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office; Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Drug Enforcement Administration; FBI; Homeland Security Investigations and U.S. Marshal’s Service.