Montana's most populous county has seen a sharp increase in violent crime since the coronavirus pandemic began, driven by more domestic abuse and drug-related crimes, federal and local authorities said Tuesday.
Yellowstone County, which includes Billings, saw a 20% spike in violent crimes such as murder, robbery, rape and assault from March 1 through July 31, U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme said.
That appears to be a statewide trend, Alme added, including in Missoula County, which saw a significant increase in violence over the last two months.
“The crimes are more serious — murders, shootings, stabbings and a 44% increase in robberies," Alme said.
Before the pandemic hit, authorities in Montana had been hopeful of turning the tide on a years-long surge in crimes as meth became more widely available. Some offenses were finally beginning to plateau before the coronavirus triggered an economic and social lock down that caused many people to lose their jobs.
Prices for meth have doubled since COVID-19 arrived, as supply chains were disrupted by tighter controls along the U.S. border with Mexico and fewer chemicals used to manufacture the drug were coming in from China, Alme said. Meanwhile, demand has risen, with Montana experiencing a 34% increase in the rate of positive drug tests for methamphetamine compared to before the pandemic, according to a recent study from Millennium Health.
The combination of more demand and less supply has set the stage for more violence, even as social service agencies that help address such problems have been forced to divert more resources to the pandemic, said Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito.
To counter those trends during a time of tightened local budgets, Alme, Twito and other law enforcement officials on Tuesday asked the public to be more vigilant in reporting crimes and domestic abuse. They urged people with addictions to seek treatment, and promised to prosecute violent offenders.
The jail in Yellowstone County has been crowded after a recent COVID outbreak prompted a suspension of some inmate transfers out of the facility. “But we will always find room" for criminals, Sheriff Mike Linder said.
Montana has surpassed 7,500 known cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began and has seen 105 deaths due to the respiratory virus.
The case numbers are believed to be higher because not everyone has been tested and people can have COVID-19 without having symptoms.
More than 1,900 people are known to still be infected, including nearly 1,000 in Yellowstone County. The number of people hospitalized reached 140 on Tuesday with 93 new cases confirmed.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. The vast majority of people recover.
More than 5,400 Montana residents are considered to have recovered from COVID-19, meaning they no longer test positive for the virus.