Montana Public Radio

Federal Initiative Targets Meth-Fueled Crime In Missoula County

May 29, 2019

The City of Missoula’s violent crime rate increased 50 percent between 2011 and 2017. Authorities blame methamphetamine for that unprecedented spike in murders, robberies and aggravated assault.

Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst Wednesday shared an ugly, real world example of the kind of havoc that meth wreaks.

“The defendant and the victim were camping when the defendant became angry and threw her and her dog into the tent. He then picked up a metal bat and struck her legs, her hips, her abdomen and her head," Pabst said. "During the assault he told her that he was going to crush her dog’s head so she would see what was going to happen to her next.”

Missoula County officials meet to discuss Project Safe Neighborhoods Missoula County, May 29, 2019.
Credit Edward O'Brien / Montana Public Radio

Pabst says the victim suffered a broken arm, bruises all over her body and required stitches to close a head injury. The dog was unharmed.

“I tell you this story not because it’s extreme, but because it’s somewhat typical for somebody who garners the attention of Project Safe Neighborhoods," Pabst said.

Project Safe Neighborhoods is a federal initiative to reduce violent crime and disrupt drug use and distribution networks. And Montana’s U.S. Attorney, Kurt Alme, says in the past year that Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) has operated in Missoula County, violent crime has declined.

“In our office, 43 defendants have been charged with meth distribution, armed robbery and firearms offenses," Alme said. "From the arrest of those 43 defendants, law enforcement seized over 20 pounds of meth, which represents over 74,000 doses. 44 firearms were also seized, including three semi-automatic rifles.”

Since PSN’s launch last May, Missoula County authorities report local murders, robberies and aggravated assaults dropped by almost 20 percent. Authorities say at least 60 fewer people were the victims of violent crime than in the previous year.

Police say the meth that surfaces in Montana is almost exclusively a product of Mexican cartels. It gets here from the west coast, and dealers command a high price.

“One of the things that we think is going to allow us to be more effective than other states have been is that we are at the end of the supply chain," Alme said. "We think that we can disrupt and we think that we can dismantle these organizations and make the cost of business to distribute drugs in Montana high. That’s our goal.”

Alme says Project Safe Neighborhoods, a nationwide U.S. Department of Justice initiative, encourages unprecedented cooperation and information sharing among participating federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

"I’ve been in and around the courts or law enforcement since the early '90s, but I haven’t seen this level of cooperation since I’ve been around. I think the reason for that is because we don’t have a choice," Alme said. "The meth problem is so significant, with the violent crime increase that we’ve seen, we’re all facing very serious problems that none of us have enough resources to handle alone.”

Some of the weapons confiscated over the past year by Project Safe Neighborhoods Missoula County, shown during a press conference, May 29, 2019.
Credit Edward O'Brien / Montana Public Radio

Alme says PSN is becoming more data driven. Think the Brad Pitt/Jonah Hill movie Moneyball in which data analytics was used to identify undervalued baseball players.

“The ultimate goal is to try to better understand who is committing the violent crime, why they’re committing it, where its being committed and when it’s being committed, so that we can all be smarter about how we allocate law enforcement resources to try to prevent it from occurring in the first place, or preventing repeat offenses. This is the trend that's going on across the country,” Alme said.

It’s happening in Missoula where the local police department has hired an intern from the University of Montana to collect and analyze violent crime stats dating back to 2014.

“Her job is to look at the crimes and the reports related to those crimes and try and determine some predictive analysis that we can use moving forward to identify associates and offenders and characteristics of those offenders and of those crimes," Missoula Chief of Police Mike Brady said.

Breaking up drug rings after the fact is one thing. Project Safe Neighborhoods also wants to get ahead of the problem by reducing demand for meth. To that end, a coalition of over 60 organizations in Yellowstone County formed last year as part of the project to assess existing resources and gaps in combating meth use. That plan should be available later this year and made available to other Montana communities to tailor to fit their individual needs.

Alme says the Project Safe Neighborhoods team offers this message:

“If you’re committing violent crimes or dealing meth, we will arrest you. If you’re a meth user or you have a friend of family member who is, please get help. There is help for you," Alme said. "And finally, if you’re considering using meth, don’t.”