Last year the city of Missoula had 324 violent crimes, an increase of nearly 50 percent since 2011. Law enforcement say the meth epidemic is to blame, and Thursday announced that they’re addressing it with a local, state and federal partnership.
For the second time in less than three months, the U.S. Attorney for Montana joined state and local law enforcement officers for a press conference to share the results of an initiative to crack down on violent crimes.
It’s part of a national initiative known as Project Safe Neighborhoods that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions highlighted in a visit to Billings in April. The goal is to create community-based, local crime-reduction plans.
“This is not something that any one government agency can do on its own. Comprehensive action would not be possible without teamwork,” says Montana Attorney General Tim Fox.
The number of crimes involving methamphetamines in Montana is up by more than 300 percent since 2012. And Montana law enforcement says meth use is driving the increase in violent crimes like murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
Missoula County launched its Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative last month, targeting meth-related crimes. At Thursday's press event, the U.S. Attorney’s Office distributed a list of 20 suspects who have already been arrested and appeared in federal and state courts in the past month under charges related to the initiative.
But U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme says the meth epidemic isn’t just a problem for those involved in crimes or dealing with addiction. Alme says Montana’s taxpayers are shouldering the burden, too.
“It’s filling our jails, it’s overwhelming our foster care system, it’s overcrowding our treatment facilities, it’s burdening our health and mental health care, and it’s enslaving people in our communities to addiction.”
The Missoula initiative is similar to one launched a few months earlier in Billings. Alme says that since the Billings initiative launched, reports have already come through his office showing at least two instances of meth dealers and distributors leaving or avoiding Montana because of the increased law enforcement activity.
Prosecutors say the initiative’s multilateral approach to cracking down on violent crime has led to increased cooperation and communication between local, state and federal agencies, keeping law enforcement from duplicating each other’s work.
The local and federal cooperation in Missoula County is a marked difference from just four years ago. Then, the two departments were mired in lawsuits over whether the Department of Justice had jurisdiction over the county office after the DOJ accused the county attorney’s office of mishandling sexual assault cases in 2012.
Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst said having the Department of Justice bring all the local law enforcement to the table was like extending an olive branch.
“It’s really encouraging to see what can happen when people work together, and we’re committed to working together and we’re seeing real results.”
Pabst, Fox and Alme made clear that prosecution is just one half of the picture.
Speaking after the event, Attorney General Fox said meth-related crime isn’t a problem Montana can jail itself out of.
Preventive measures, including expanding access to treatment resources, are also going to be part of how Montana fights meth, he said.