Daines, local officials talk rising crime rates in Billings

U.S. Senator Steve Daines joined local law enforcement, elected officials and a district judge to tour the Billings Police Department’s evidence facility Friday to talk about concerning levels of crime in the region.

Daines sat down with Billings city administrator Chris Kukulski, Police Chief Rich St. John, County Commissioner John Ostlund, Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder, County Attorney Scott Twito, District Judge Mary Jane Knisely, and director of the state’s Department of Corrections Brian Gootkin.

The focus of the conversation was on rapidly increasing crime rates, drugs like methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl and the impacts those issues have on the community. The consensus among the group being that crime, drug use and violent crime are out of control and pose a serious threat to the community’s safety and economy.

“I’m concerned ultimately when, at some point, crime is going to have a serious negative effect on our economy,” said Kukulski, kicking off a discussion about crime effects on businesses. “I frankly am shocked by what our community is dealing with.”

The city’s number one priority is crime control, Kukulski said, pointing to statistics from the county attorney’s office linking a broad majority of crime to meth and other drugs. It is a problem the city cannot tackle without state and federal support, he said.

Numbers of felony case filings out of the county attorney’s office painted a grim picture of crime trends over the past decade. In 2010, the office handled 677 felony cases ranging from drug offenses to homicides. Ten years later, in 2020, the office filed 1,722 similar cases to include some of the highest homicide rates in the county’s history. Twito expects 2021 to continue that upward trend, saying they were on track to file nearly 2,000 felonies this year. The broad majority of those cases occur in the City of Billings.

Meth is the root cause of the city’s crime woes, officials told Daines. They pointed to robbery, theft, violent crime and even shootings as side effects of drug use and trafficking. In some cases, addicts are stealing in an effort to fund their habits and in others traffickers are using violence to defend their product.

Drug use is a compounding problem for the criminal justice system, Twito explained. Case intake lists show some individuals charged with up to seven active cases at a time. Cases, he says, that added up while the person was on prerelease conditions pending prosecution. Untreated addictions can often cause people to reoffend and end up back in front of a judge.

Police Chief St. John told the senator that Billings in 2020 experienced a 400% increase in homicide rates compared to years past, and 2021 was on pace to break that record. He hoped a downward trend was on the horizon, but pointed to violent crime, downtown safety, and drug use as key concerns for his department.

Daines asked about demographics involved in violent crime in the city, to which Twito said it seems to be young people turning to gun violence very quickly. Three shootings this past week led to the arrest of two younger men, one in his late teens and the other in his early twenties.

shootout between two young men in late June led to the arrest of an 18-year-old man and the death of a 22-year-old. That crime looked to be meth-related, and it occurred close to a popular restaurant at just after 11 p.m., said Twito.

“So, it’s very concerning,” he said.

The legalization of marijuana was also addressed as the state and local governments contend with the end of pot prohibitions in the state. St. John anticipates driving under the influence charges to increase by the thousands due to the recreational use of the drug. He said those numbers were based on observations by law enforcement in states where the drug has been legal for years.

He also anticipated the “gateway drug” will “exacerbate” the problem of other drug use and lead not only to more meth and heroin addictions, but to more theft and violence.

“I’ve never known anybody to just get up in the morning and say, ‘I think I’m gonna try meth,’” the chief said, pointing to a belief that hard drug use escalates with time. “It’s always, ‘what’s next, what’s better?’”

Solutions to drug use and increasing violent crime levels were not as clear as the problem though. Daines pointed to securing the southern border and interdicting drug trafficking operations as requirements to getting the drug problem under control. Twito pointed to treatment diversions to keep addicts out of the criminal justice system as beneficial to reducing crime rates and lessening court burdens.

“There’s the demand side, the supply side and the treatment side to think about,” said Daines. Apparently seeking to steer the conversation toward interdiction, he asked, “Where’s it coming from?”

The meth is Mexican sourced and coming across the border, explained St. John, but the extremely dangerous synthetic-opioid, fentanyl, is arriving from China.

Twito told the Gazette that he feels drug intervention prior to charges being levied would meaningfully divert addicts from the criminal justice system. A substance abuse connect group Twito and former U.S. Attorney for Montana, Kurt Alme, were previously working on would have screened out people who could be helped by treatment prior to court proceedings.

Such a program could cut the crime rate by up to 10% he said, but he pointed out funding is a key concern. Mostly because the fiscal benefits of diversion go to the state, but most of the cost falls on local government.

“The burden falls on the local government. They don’t have the money to do that,” he explained. “So, what we need to do, is we need to have some sort of mechanism that triggers some sort of state funding. The person that benefits the most from this is the court system, which is state run, and the probation department which is state run.”

The state legislature passed a law this year that expanded drug courts statewide, offering hope that diversion from prison and corrections facilities could be an outcome for some drug offenders. Yellowstone County helped pilot the program in Montana starting in 2019. Crime rates are a concern to the judiciary as well even as court alternatives grow in the county. 

“I’ve been on the bench now for about 11 years,” said Knisely. “We’re up nine percent from last year at half-year point, and the judges are just trying to keep up.”

They’re grateful that they now have six federally-funded treatment courts she said, but Knisely’s felony DUI court sits at 400% capacity and she cautioned that they can’t treat everyone in drug, DUI and veterans courts as it is.

In response to whether he would support federal legislation to reform policing if it came with more funding for law enforcement, Daines said he had concerns about revamping liability laws that shield cops from being held responsible for shootings or actions while on the job. In 2020, Daines backed a bill that would have funded cameras and increased police accountability. 

“The funding part makes sense to me,” he responded. “But the most important voice in that discussion is the voice of members of law enforcement in Montana.”