State, federal and local prosecutors discuss trends, resources with city crime task force

The Great Falls crime task force met at the end of June and was briefed by state, federal and local attorneys on the crime trends their seeing, available resources and recommendations for solutions.

Bryan Lockerby, who heads the Division of Criminal Investigation for the Montana Department of Justice, said that Cascade County is in the regional drug crime task force area because it’s a “way point” for drugs and “meth is our number one problem,” following by fentanyl.

He told the group that his office tracks in custody death since it investigates those cases and their seeing an upward trend. In 2012, there were four statewide.

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In 2017, there were 10, the following year there were 19, in 2019 there were 14 and in 2020 there were 20. So far in 2021, he said, there had been 14.

He said their seeing an increase in suicide by cop, in large part due to mental health and substance abuse issues.

“Those numbers just keep going up,” Lockerby said.

He said that drugs will always be a problem, but types of crime that they’re watching in the area include elder fraud and abuse since the state has a large population of older citizens, and there are high numbers of exploitation online and crimes against children.

Lockerby referred the task force to the Montana Department of Justice’s strategic plan on substance abuse as a guide, rather than reinventing the wheel.

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Lockerby offered a few no-cost recommendations for the task force, including to develop relationships with EMS providers and look at information on what’s happening in local emergency rooms.

“It will give you a snapshot of what’s happening in your community,” he said, and “the quicker you can get that information, the quicker you can respond to what’s happening.”

He said that the state lab can have a 30-day turnaround on testing and sometimes by the time information gets back to local agencies, it can slow the response.

As an example, he said, he recently got a call from the state lab as they were seeing an increase in fentanyl cases, so he called emergency rooms and first responders who also said they were seeing an increase in calls, and he put out an alert on the increase in fentanyl overdoses.

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At the end of June, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services put out an alert regarding the increase in fentanyl-related fatalities.

The Montana Department of Justice’s State Crime Lab reported 41 fentanyl-related deaths in 2020, up from 19 in 2019, according to the DPHHS release. Through May 2021, there had already been 22 total confirmed fentanyl-related fatalities, including 11 statewide in April, including Cascade County.

In the release, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen said that that DOJ officials believe fentanyl is being sold as a substitute for heroine meant for injection drug use or in the form of counterfeit pills and pills disguised to look like a legitimately prescribed opioid that contained fentanyl have been found in Montana.

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“This is an ongoing investigation but we know that counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl are manufactured overseas and smuggled across the border before coming to Montana,” Knudsen said in a release. “Even a small amount of fentanyl is enough to be fatal. No one should take pills that were not prescribed to them and parents need to talk to their kids about the dangers of ingesting unknown substances.”

There’s been an increase in opioid overdose calls in general statewide, according to DPHHS. In 2020, the state averaged 45 opioid calls per month. By the middle of 2021, the state has averaged 54 opioid overdose calls per month, including an increase in March with 68 calls, the highest number of calls in one month over the last three years. In 2018, the state averaged 18 calls per month and it was 24 in 2019, according to DPHHS.

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Another recommendation, Lockerby said, is to take advantage of internal resources to preemptively create safer environments using Crime Prevention through Environmental Design, a concept that’s been in use in Great Falls for several years and was encouraged by a former downtown officer from the Great Falls Police Department, the Great Falls Public Schools used the concept in designs for their new schools, and the city just approved a funding mechanism for CPTED projects downtown through the tax increment financing district.

Lockerby encouraged the group to use the city’s planning department, which is trained and skilled in looking at design that helps create safer environments such as lighting and landscaping.

He also suggested increase public education, awareness and outreach to help the public better understand the situation.

Lockerby said the state doesn’t interfere with local law enforcement typically because each community has unique crime issues.

“The more you can narrow the root cause down, the greater benefit you will have in what you’re trying to solve here,” he said.

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Leif Johnson, the acting U.S. Attorney for the area, said that examples of the types of cases they prosecute include felons in possession of weapons, drug trafficking, use of guns, lying to get guns, carjackings and Hobbs Act crimes, which includes anything that impacts interstate commerce.

The office has also done a pilot Project Safe Neighborhoods program in Missoula and Yellowstone counties, which were selected for federal funding in the program.

The program is a collaboration between federal, state and local agencies with targeted prosecutions, tactical meetings and agreements to share the burdens of prosecuting local violent crime.

Johnson said the program is having success in Missoula County where violent crime has dropped about 30 percent. He said that Yellowstone County was stabilizing until COVID-19 hit and violent crime numbers increased again.

He said the program might be a useful template for Great Falls to consider with the complimentary Substance Abuse Connect program.

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“In this size of city, I think you can have a pretty profound impact with this kind of targeted” program, Johnson said. “It’s not a golden arrow that’s going to take care of every problem,” but the collaboration can have an impact.

He recommended that the community compile their data, then apply for grants and other resources, then collaborate with the Cascade County Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Cascade County Attorney Josh Racki said that his office has 12 attorneys and 12 support staff split between the criminal and civil divisions.

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The criminal division handles about 1,500 misdemeanors annually for those outside city limits and the office has agreements with some of the smaller jurisdictions in the county to prosecute their criminal cases, as well as with state agencies such as the Montana Highway Patrol.

In 2020, Racki said his office filed 831 felony cases, which was down from the previous year, a reduction that hadn’t happened in years, he said, but was due to COVID-19.

They filed 1,077 search warrants; 340 dependent neglect cases, which are are also known as youth in need of care; 59 youth court cases; and 24 mental health commitments in 2020, Racki said.

The average felony case load per attorney in his office is 75, Racki said, and there are 584 active cases pending in district court with either a trial date set or someone has been arrested and is waiting to get a trial date scheduled.

“My attorneys barely have time to breathe in between cases,” he said.

The district court has been down a judge since Greg Pinksi retired last fall. Former Gov. Steve Bullock appointed Michelle Levine to the seat and she heard cases for a few months before the Legislature rejected her appointment and the seat has been vacant for several months.

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Racki said for comparison, Cascade County tried 25 criminal cases in 2019 and Yellowstone County tried 22.

Racki said that drivers of crime in the community include substance abuse and mental illness, but one of their biggest challenges is manpower, which drives the heavy caseload and cases were getting backed up with the lack of a fourth district court judge.

He said that the community lacks resources for chemical dependency and mental health treatment, but there was movement in that area through a community partnership being developed by Alluvion Health.

Racki said their needs include more staff, as well as pretrial and misdemeanor probation resources.

“Maybe if we could intervene in some misdemeanor cases, with probation services to help straighten them out before they commit a big offense,” Racki said. Pre-trial supervision would also help keep the jail population down and they see a lot of repeat offenders.

“People keep getting out and committing more felonies,” Racki said. With pre-trial, he said they may be able to curb some of that activity.

While Great Falls is a hub of services, resources are limited, Racki said and they’re overwhelmed and facing funding cuts.

“It’s just really hard to get those resources,” Racki said.

As an example, he said there’s one psychiatrist in town who does evaluations for the county attorney’s office but he has a full time job and helps out as an additional duty, Racki said.

Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said they’re backlogged at the jail often because they know someone can’t stand trial but they can’t find the right resources to have them evaluated and figure out how to handle the case.

“It’s a huge challenge for our county attorney,” Slaughter said of getting mental health evaluations for those in jail.

Warm Springs is often full, he said, so there’s no where to put people who need services and the “languish in jail.

The state shutdown of the treatment facility at Boulder was significant, Slaughter said, “that ripple effect was massive.”

On July 1, the county jail began its new contract with Alluvion for medical services and that contract includes mental health evaluators at the jail, Slaughter said.

Neil Anthon, the city’s chief prosecutor, said that they handle misdemeanor cases that occur within the city limits.

As of the end of June, they were already up to 4,389 cases for the year, most were crimes against persons, such as assault, partner family member assault, stalking, endangering the welfare of a child, minor in possession of alcohol, sex assault and indecent exposure, among others.

He said that stalking cases were increasing. He’d been in the city prosecutor’s office since 2007, and up until 2020 there had been a total of 50 stalking cases. In 2020, there were 20 cases.

Offenses against property are also high in the city, which include theft, criminal mischief, criminal trespass, forgery, theft of identity and deceptive practices, among others.

Anthon said that many of the cases they handle are substance abuse related.

In a city of about 60,000 people, local law enforcement are writing an estimated 11,000 citations annually Anthon said. Compared to Billings, where the population is about double and they average 15,000 citations and have more staff than the city prosecutor’s office, he said.

As a possible solution, Anthon said he’s working with the local law clinic in the hopes of getting the clinic to work with people who’ve had their licenses suspended on how to fix that and connect them with resources. He said the city prosecutor’s office used to do that but they no longer have the manpower with just two prosecutors and a new one coming fresh out of law school this summer.

The task force meets again at 4 p.m. July 12 in the Gibson Room at the Civic Center.