Written by Devon Boen
In 2011, the Billings Police Department made 25.1 arrests per 1,000 people and handled 8,604 criminal incidents relative to a 105,095 population. The Wolf Point Police Department made 170.2 arrests per 1,000 people and handled 506 criminal incidents relative to a 2,644 population in that same amount of time.
Proportionately, Wolf Point had a 19 percent incident rate compared to Billings’ 8 percent. It’s difficult to understand how a tiny little town in northeast Montana can beat the state’s biggest city when comparing certain elements of crime rates.
But Billings is just one simple resource for comparison’s sake. Wolf Point not only beat Billings in terms of arrest rates per 1,000, but all 103 reporting counties and cities as well. It also had the second highest rate of incidents per population size, just behind Darby, a small town on the western side of the state.
This might leave some scratching their heads. Why Wolf Point? None of the surrounding towns compare. Glasgow and Sidney both reported rates that were less than half of Wolf Point’s numbers proportionately.
Wolf Point doesn’t have high crime rates across the board. Most of Wolf Point’s crime is property crime rather than violent crime and that high rate of property crime might account of the city’s inflated arrest and incident numbers.
Property crime includes larceny, theft, burglary, motor vehicle theft, etc. According to the 2011 FBI offenses known to law enforcement, Wolf Point had 140 property crimes. That meant Wolf Point had approximately 53 property crimes committed per 1,000 residents, compared to Montana’s approximate 23 per 1,000. The national rate in 2011 was 29 per 1,000.
Property crime has been linked to poverty and addiction, but there is no singular or universal cause of high crime rates. It varies by each location and all of its nuances.
A University Of Delaware study, “Property Crime,” explained why poverty has an effect on the property crime rate.
“The poor possess and have access to fewer goods and services in society than those better off financially. Since crimes against property are often a needs-based response to economic deprivation or a protest against it (vandalism, for example), fluctuations in poverty, unemployment, and inequality affect property crime,” it stated.
Wolf Point’s poverty rate is 17.9 percent which is significantly higher than Montana’s 14.1 percent (2008) and the national rate of 15.1 (2011).
Wolf Point Police Department Lieutenant Brian Erwin said he believed the rate of crimes against property was directly related to the poverty level and that addiction was a contributing factor. Erwin said of all the suspects involved in a criminal incident that the WPPD handled about 80 percent were under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
He said the most common crime was theft from a vehicle, but his department has seen it all.
“They’re siphoning gas, they’re stealing bikes and they’re kicking in doors to steal large screen televisions,” Erwin said.
Police officers are the first responders to a scene, but they are not the judge, jury and executioner, as Erwin put it. A multitude of factors beyond an officer’s control influence the crime rate and the ramifications for alleged criminals.
Besides poverty and addiction, Erwin said a lack of truth in sentencing contributed to the high rates of property crime, meaning that people who commit these crimes often see very little jail time, if any at all.
Erwin said this was due to many factors, but specifically noted the over-population of jails.
He said the judicial system, not just in Wolf Point, but everywhere, was crippled. He said the problems were evident on local, state and federal levels, and that the Wolf Point Police Department did the best they could by focusing on their shortcomings and correcting them on a regular basis.
Erwin said Wolf Point’s population calls for four full-time police officers but, in reality, Wolf Point has eight and could easily make use of 12 officers. But that won’t happen due to a lack of funding from the state. Erwin said he believed more officers would translate to a lower crime rate because the department could significantly increase patrol.
Other than police officers, business owners deal with the aftermath of property crime in Wolf Point. Co-managers of Town Pump, Noreen Hohman and Tammy Bostick, explained how handling criminal activity at the popular gas station was a constant struggle.
Hohman said the occurrence of incidents in Town Pump that merit some sort of police action are non-stop, whether it is a banned person who refuses to leave or a customer attempting to steal. Hohman also said about 80 percent of the people involved in some sort of criminal incident in Town Pump are intoxicated, right on par with Erwin’s experience.
According to Hohman, about one out of five customers steal an item from the store without ever coming to the cash register. She said about 1/3 of customers use a more subtle tactic by purchasing a few items at the register and then walking out with more than they bought.
“It’s [amount of theft or attempted theft] a huge amount,” Hohman said. “Even though they get away with it at the time, they don’t later.”
She said 70 to 80 percent of the people who steal or attempt to steal from Town Pump are stopped by her two-person security team.
Hohman believes that most people didn’t know such a large amount of suspects were caught and that lack of knowledge led to a false sense of security for those committing the crimes. Although most suspects are caught, Hohman and Bostick still have to work around the clock to manage the constant incidents.
“I think we’re doing our part,” Hohman said. She also said that law enforcement did an excellent job handling the issue at Town Pump and in general.
Wolf Point law enforcement and businesses are on the front line when it comes to the high rate of property crimes in the area and it is a problem they, and all other entities of the community, will continue to struggle with and work to rectify in the future.