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Law enforcement addresses crime issues in Billings

Public safety forum.jpg
Posted at 8:29 AM, Jan 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-14 10:29:13-05

BILLINGS - More than 100 people came out for a public safety forum Thursday evening at the Billings Public Library's Royal Johnson Community Room.

Six people from city, county, state, and federal agencies talked about some of the challenges facing law enforcement.

"We're seeing more of the international flavor starting to hit our community," said Stacy Zinn, DEA Regional Agent in Charge. "And what I mean by that, we have more Mexican cartels that are actually targeting our areas."

"Big issue during the legislative session was caseloads," said Brian Gootkin, Montana Department of Corrections director.

Crime is a growing problem in Billings. While there were fewer homicides in 2021, assaults were up along with several other violent crimes. That means jails are also filling up.

"My concern is we have too many people in there," Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said about the jail. "And we're not getting them through the system like we should. And I think that's going to be part of what the panel is going to talk about, how we can get people through our criminal justice system. We have overcrowding. We have a lot of people in there with mental health, drug addiction, those types of issues. And they're not in there necessarily for treatment. But we have to find some way to work with them and to help them succeed and when they come out of the jail, you know, to move on in life."

Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said the biggest problem in Billings is an increase in aggravated assaults over the last three years.

"Here in Billings, specifically, we have a high number of people who are using weapons to injure people," St. John said. "Our homicides decreased from 22 to nine, so that's a good thing. But we still see high numbers of assaults involving weapons, specifically some sort of firearm."

A report released in the Spring of 2021 shows 476 aggravated assaults in 2018, 513 in 2019, and 781 in 2020.

And the chief agrees with the sheriff and the Department of Corrections about one of the bigger challenges.

"Whether it is not enough officers, not enough space in a jail situation, not enough probation officers, not enough counselors or mental health workers, it's capacity or lack thereof," St. John said. "There's things we can do working together. There's things that are identified in existing laws, you know, that can be cleaned up a little bit to help the situation. And I think if we do that all together, we can make a difference and get the numbers to turn the other way.

Montana State Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, and Deputy Chief County Attorney Ed Zink from the Yellowstone County Attorney's Office, also joined the discussion.

The Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee organized the forum.