GREAT FALLS — When people think about criminal gangs, most people probably assume they are only in larger areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, or Denver. But you might be surprised to find out that gangs are present right here in Big Sky Country.
For those who doubt a gang presence in Great Falls, the writing is on the wall - literally.
“We are getting graffiti, graffiti is popping back up," said Sgt. Jeff Beecroft of the Great Falls Police Department. “There was a delay. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, we had the drive-by shootings, and we had the graffiti, and we had assaults and drugs and the intimidation and all that stuff. They were well organized.”
Beecroft has been with the Great Falls Police Department for nearly 33 years and has extensive experience with gangs. He says gang activity today is less organized and that gang members here are usually from out of state, often transporting or selling drugs.
Beecroft was part of a Safe Streets Gang Task Force from 2006 to 2012. He says the group was effective before being discontinued because the FBI wanted to go in a different direction, changing the funding options and the police department’s initial mission. “We were taking a lot of guys off the street that were causing a lot of problems for our community,” said Beecroft.
Beecroft says Montana does have its share of homegrown, fully-documented gang members, many of whom are in prison. He says just because someone might be termed a “wanna be” gangster, doesn’t make that person less dangerous.
“They’re still doing the crimes that gangs and gang members do,” said Beecroft. “They’re involved with guns, they’re involved with drugs, they’re involved with vandalism.”
At the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, the detention center has a designated gang coordinator.
“I feel it’s very important in keeping track of the information,” said Officer Morris, the current gang coordinator and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. “Collecting the information, keeping track of the things going on because that’s how we get a handle on if tensions are rising, if there’s something we got to look out for, is a gang going to attempt to make a move so the officers on the floor, we can get ahead of it.”
Morris says even though he’s been in the position for just a short time, he sees detention officers making a difference.
“The floor officers are doing a great job of as we say, checking the weather,” said Morris. “Seeing what’s going on on the blocks, is anybody talking, is anybody making any moves.”
Officer Morris has a mentor to rely on when it comes to experience - Sgt. Mike Lenahan, a 10-year veteran as a detention center officer, with much of that time spent as the gang coordinator.
Lenahan said, “Eight percent of our current inmates are gang affiliated or suspected to be gang affiliated.
When Lenahan held the position, Cascade County was still housing a share of state inmates. He says for legal reasons, the jail needs to be cautious in classifying gang members, which is why some are referred to as suspected of being gang affiliated.
“My job was to interview all of the inmates as they came into the facility,” said Lenahan. “Identify which ones were gang members, which gangs they were with, how active they were, what their rank was within the gang, and to learn as much as I could about the different gangs.”
The different and mostly raced-based gangs include Hispanic groups such as the Nortenos and Surenos; the Bloods and Crips; Native or hybrid gangs which include Native Pride, Dine Pride, and Warrior Society; and white supremacist gangs.
“I wasn’t just identifying them, but also making sure that within the different housing units that we had a good mix of people from all the different gangs so that no one gang became too powerful,” said Lenahan. “When one gang becomes too powerful, all the other gangs become victims.”
Lenahan says during his time at the jail there haven’t been any serious gang incidents - mostly one-on-one fights. He attributes that to most of the inmates being minimum or medium security.
Like Beecroft, Lenahan and Morris say much of the gang activity in Montana is a result of the drug trade.
“Within Great Falls and within this facility, I would say 99-percent of our gang activity is drug-related,” said Lenahan.
“You got it coming up from Mexico, going into Canada, and then they’re routing stuff from Canada down through here, and then they branch out from here going out into the oilfields,” said Morris.
“I think it’s going to be more important in the years to come because of the southern border and what Montana is starting to see,” said Beecroft. “Not only from Mexico but we’re seeing it trickle up through the states through Cailfornia, Oregon, Washington, and so on.”
Officer Morris believes Great Falls is still a safe place and says there are some misconceptions about gangs: “A lot of people think just because someone has a bunch of tattoos and he’s carrying a firearm that he must be in a gang and that’s not necessarily true."
Lenahan says there have been several women at the jail who have been classified as gang members or suspected of being gang members. He says gang membership among women is not common: “A lot of times when a woman is involved in a gang it's because her significant other is involved, and she wants to be part of it.”
Lenahan says it is difficult for a gang member to leave the gang. “There’s no such thing in the gang world as a former gang member,” said Lenahan. “You can be retired if you’ve put in enough work, which is called doing crimes for the gang. Even if you’re retired, you’re still expected to be there if they need you.”
He adds that much of the good intelligence they receive about gangs is from gang members looking to get out.
“In order to show their sincerity to the gang coordinator, they would give us a lot of information about the gang structure,” said Lenahan. “Not about specific people, but about the gang structure and who the bosses are, what kind of authority people have and stuff like that.”
Lenahan says the makeup of gangs is also changing: “There are quite a few blond-haired, blue-eyed Crips running around. It's not strictly a racial thing anymore.”
Beecroft says information pertaining to gangs or members in our community is always beneficial: “We would definitely appreciate any information regarding these topics but also with other topics such as drugs, thefts, and any other crime related info."
Beecroft says there is no law in Montana that says it is illegal to be in a gang, but law enforcement agencies rely on the community for information to help with identification or solving of crimes.
“The issues can not be just a police problem,” said Beecroft. “There has to be community involvement which benefits not only the police but also our community.”