As Montana U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme prepares to step down Dec. 2, he spoke with MTN News about the biggest challenges facing his successor.
First and foremost, the new U.S. attorney for Montana will be dealing with COVID-19 and its impact on Montana's justice system, including an alarming jump in violent crimes.
According to new data obtained from Project Safe Neighborhoods, the latest crime numbers for Missoula and Yellowstone counties reveal a disturbing trend.
"We know that in Missoula County, violent crime, primarily aggravated assaults have increased more than 40 percent since COVID began," said Alme.
"In Yellowstone County, the numbers are even higher. We had 119 murders, robberies and aggravated assaults in September, and 109 in October," Alme said. "Compare that to pre-Covid, the highest numbers we've had that I'm aware of, was one month during the summer of 2019, we had 79. So you can see what we're facing here."
While the verdict is still out as to why violent crime is on the rise here, Alme said it is well documented that domestic violence is connected to an increase in alcohol and drug use.
"We know domestic violence increased 32% in Yellowstone County, and that usually happens after a natural disaster that forces people inside," explained Alme. "Alcohol sales were up 50 percent in the first few months, that's never a good thing. And we know from Millennium Health that methamphetamine urinalysis positive test rates were up almost 34% over the first few months of this pandemic in Montana, which means meth use was also up."
To complicate matters in Billings, the county jail is full, and that is putting judges, police and the entire system in a difficult spot.
"In Yellowstone County, there are more than 100 Department of Corrections prisoners who need to be transferred to Deer Lodge, but Deer Lodge has not been able to do that because of COVID," said Alme. "So, it's very difficult for the police, the judges and the county attorney here to get a dangerous person off the street and get them into jail."
In announcing his resignation this week, Alme pointed to several accomplishments and initiatives during his tenure as Montana's U.S. attorney. Those include building community coalitions to tackle the meth issue, and also working with Montana's Native American communities to adopt response plans and protocols to report a missing person.
"We need to put in place protocols and guidelines for law enforcement, for victim services providers, for the entire community to follow when someone goes missing," explained Alme.
Alme has chaired the Tribal Response Plan effort by the U.S. Department of Justice, in cooperation with the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and local law enforcement entities. Later this month, Montana will join the states of Alaska, Oregon, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Michigan in setting up pilot programs to adopt such plans in Montana tribal communities.
Alme's advice for Montana's next U.S. attorney is to develop good listening skills and get out of the office.
"You need to get out of the office, talk to people, and learn solutions," said Alme. "Our Tribal Councils are made up of very bright people, who know their tribe and culture best, and they have good suggestions on how we can work together on public safety issues."
The overall theme, he said, is drugs because most crime is connected in some way to the drug trade.
"It's dealer-on-dealer traffic, it's people breaking into homes or cars or businesses, or robbing each other to get money to buy drugs to use or sell," said Alme. "So much of what we deal with in the violent crime area, and the property crime area comes back to the drug trade. Montana right now has the highest violent crime rate in the continental Northwest, and we know a lot of it is driven by methamphetamine," said Alme.