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Violent Crime Up In Billings Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Jess Sheldahl
Yellowstone Public Radio
U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme with Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder (left) and Billings Police Chief Rich St. John (right) address the increase in violent crime in the county on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn on Sept. 1, 2020.

Violent crime in Montana’s most populated county has been on the rise since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Reports police say a majority of the increase in violent crime is connected to drug use.

Yellowstone County law enforcement officials say from March through July violent crime rose nearly 21 percent compared to the same time period last year.

"This means we had 67 more violent crimes and 67 more victims during that time. And the crimes are more serious. With murders, shootings, stabbings and a 44 percent increase in robberies," said U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme.

Alme said during a press conference on Sept. 1 the rise follows a period of crime starting to level out in 2019.

Police point to methamphetamine as the main reason behind the surge in violent crime. According to a July report by Millennium Health, meth use in Montana increased by about 34 percent since March, which police say may be connected to the mental toll of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sister Mary Dostal works with domestic violence survivors at Angela's Piazza, a women's drop in center in Billings. She says she has noticed a greater need for services.

"Especially in April and May, we had an increase of women coming here. Either to talk one on one with one of the staff or to enroll in our class or support group because they experienced domestic violence," Dostal said.

MarCee Neary with the Crisis Community Center in Billings, one of the organizations police collaborate with, says she hasn’t noticed any growth in violence at the center, but she has noticed more angry people who need support.

"Our law enforcement has a lot of work and they need help. But I do believe our community is moving in the right direction to try to help with those people who maybe need more of the mental health help and social service help," Neary said.

County and city law enforcement agencies say they are working on crime prevention measures including resources for people experiencing substance abuse, mental illness, homelessness or domestic violence.

"We need everybody in this community to stand up and help us. We need the public’s help. Watch out for your neighbor. If you see a crime, report it. Help those peace officers out on the street trying to keep you safe," said Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito.