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Homicides, Violent Crimes Increased in Montana During Pandemic

Police car.
Police car

Violent crimes in Montana, like much of the United States, spiked statewide during the coronavirus pandemic.

Violent crimes like homicide, robbery and aggravated assault in 2020 saw an uptick of nearly 14% in Montana compared to the previous year. That’s according to data from the Montana board of crime control.

State data shows the increase stems from a rise in robberies and aggravated assaults reported by police across Montana last year. Some towns saw their increasing crime rates continue to rise while others saw downward crime trends tick up. 

Kirsten Pabst, Missoula County Attorney, says the county’s declining trend of violent crime changed course during 2020. 

“That reversed sharply as soon as the pandemic hit,” Pabst says.

Pabst says violent crimes in Missoula ticked up at the start of the pandemic and peaked last summer, when aggravated assaults were up 65% compared to the same period in 2019. 

She says increases in crimes like strangulation, high speed chases and exposing children to drugs started around the same time COVID-19 related lockdowns were put in place. She says most were driven by substance use disorders. The trend started to taper off in the fall, but Pabst says the increase could have a lasting impact. 

“The criminal justice system can react and respond, but there’s nothing you can do to necessarily bring back that person’s sense of safety in the community,” Pabst says.

There were 50 homicides in Montana last year, the most reported in state data going back to 1980. The previous high was set in 2005 with 43 homicides.

According to the Billings Police Department’s annual report, the city accounted for almost half of all of Montana’s recorded homicides in 2020.

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito says his office saw the uptick in partner or family member assault felonies at the start of the pandemic.

“I guess I could say from that, that it was fairly consistent like it was in past years, and then it really sort of did an uptick starting in April of last year,” Twito says. 

Twito says the pandemic is likely a factor in the increase in violent crimes. However, he says, the town was already seeing crime rates rise, which he attributes to more people paroled or released into Billings than in other parts of the state. 

“I mean, we should have a little bit higher numbers than Missoula, we should have a little bit higher numbers than Gallatin County because we have more people, but we’re seeing awful high numbers,” Twito says. 

Twito says he doesn’t see the local rise in violent crime going back to pre-pandemic levels. 

Nanette Gilbertson is the executive director for the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. She says the group doesn’t have stats about violent crime trends, but law enforcement officials across the state have all reported an uptick in violent crimes.

“They’re reporting that violent crimes and calls for service have increased over the past year and a half, two years, and, frankly, all the way back to 2017,” Gilbertson says.

The recent statewide increase of violent crimes follows a national trend.

Thomas Abt is with the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice that commissioned a report titled Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities.

“In 2020, we saw a historic rise in homicides, 30% across the cities we studied compared to the previous year,” Abt says.

The report looked at 34 cities like Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta. It found that homicides, assaults and robberies went up during the pandemic.

He says it’s not a “big city” problem; rather, it’s a city problem. 

“And so, individuals who are already under tremendous pressure and strain, and already vulnerable to the risk factors associated with violence, were now placed under even more financial, housing pressure, emotional pressure.”

He says the pandemic placed people earning low incomes and law enforcement under “enormous strain.” Infections of COVID-19 clustered in those areas, too, where high rates of gun violence typically happen.

Abt says the nationwide trend is likely driven by the pandemic, social unrest caused by police violence, and an increase in gun sales. 

“As we said in the report, it’s likely a perfect storm of factors all operating in the same direction to push homicide and other violent crime rates higher,” he says.

Abt says it’s hard to predict what violent crimes might look like going into the summer, but the financial, housing and emotional pressures will continue.

“And so, unfortunately, I am not optimistic about violent crime rates this year,” he says.

Abt says the nationwide spike in violent crime is troubling, but it’s important to note that we’re nowhere near the violent crime highs of the early 1990s. He says the rise in violent crime is cause for serious concern, but not panic.

Freddy Monares was a reporter and Morning Edition host at Montana Public Radio.
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