Fans of Breaking Bad no doubt appreciated the irony when Walter White of Lockwood was recently sentenced to 12 years for his part in a conspiracy to distribute methamphetamines in the Bakken oil fields. But his conviction was not part of a fantasy TV drama, it was a symptom of a very real problem — the explosion of crimes related to drugs and violence that oil and gas drilling has brought to western North Dakota and eastern Montana.
It’s no mystery why the proliferation of drilling brings crime with it. You bring in thousands of men to work in the fields, house them in “man camps” because there’s no place for them to live locally, pay them large salaries, and you’ve got a substantial crime problem. Hangers on come to the camps to provide vices to young men with money: drugs and prostitution mostly, but in an environment that is mostly men and few women, rape and domestic violence increase as well.
“It’s following the money,” said Michael W. Cotter, the U.S. attorney for Montana. “I hate to call the cartels entrepreneurs, but they’re in the business to make money. There’s a lot of money flying around that part of Montana and North Dakota.”
Sgt. Kylan Klauzer, an investigator in Dickinson where violent crime is up nearly 500% over five years, said, “It feels like the modern-day Wild West.”
Domestic violence shelters are filling up, the residue of troubled migrations.
Families arrived hoping for $20-an-hour jobs, but discovered that modest homes rent for $2,000 and everything from gasoline to dinner costs more. The stresses of life piled up. Alcohol and drugs added to the problem. Old patterns of domestic abuse crossed state lines.
ND officials try to sugar coat the story
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem tried to put a calm face on it last summer when he released crime statistics comparing the state’s oil counties with the rest of the state, saying that there wasn’t much proportional difference between the two. That’s ridiculous. The numbers he released speak for themselves, and if he looked only at towns like Williston and Dickinson, which are right at the center of the boom, the comparison would be even more stark.
According to a recent article in the Billings Gazette, prisons in the area, designed to be filled over a period of years, are overflowing:
- The Dawson County jail, one of the region’s largest, with 24 beds and four holding cells, was at or near capacity all but two months during 2013.
- In Sidney, the 24-bed jail maxed out in July and began housing overflow inmates in a separate wing normally reserved for juveniles. Two days after Christmas, inmates there numbered 29. The juvenile wing was again occupied by adults.
- In Williston, the new 116 bed facility is at capacity. Inmates are being shipped as far away as Helena.
- In Roosevelt County, Montana, where arrests were up 855 percent in five years, Sheriff Freedom Crawford says his jail is so full that he is ticketing and releasing offenders for minor crimes like disorderly conduct. Why? “I don’t have nowhere to put them,” Crawford says.
If you’ve got the stomach for it, you can find for yourselves the stories of the abduction and murder of a 43 year old Sidney teacher, the rape of an 83 year old Dickinson woman, or the disappearance of a 30 year old Dickinson man putting in water and sewer pipes.
No new money coming
Because of the federal sequester and local funding cuts, you won’t see money pouring in for more law enforcement personnel or more jails. According to Michael Cotter, US attorney for Montana, which experienced $672,000 in Department of Justice sequestration cuts in 2013,
The decrease in funds will result in a decrease in agents and officers investigating cases, a decrease in cases prosecuted at local and federal levels and a decrease in criminals brought to justice. Lives of the folks living in Eastern Montana will be negatively affected.
Don’t let it happen in Red Lodge
This didn’t have to happen. Public officials like Williston Mayor Ward Koeser will tell you, “if you’re going to be an oil town, that’s what you’re going to have.”
Nonsense. It is the responsibility of public officials to protect the public safety. You can’t have an oil and gas tax holiday, which deprives local counties of revenues it desperately needs, and expect them to build jails and hire law enforcement personnel. It is irresponsible for our senators, state and local officials to stand by and let Red Lodge get turned into Dickinson, North Dakota. If they’re going to bring in the engines of economic growth, they’ve got to find a way to protect the land and the residents so you’ve got a viable community when the boom turns to bust.
What has happened in North Dakota and eastern Montana is about to happen on the Beartooth. Oil permits are starting to be issued, and energy companies are promising to turn this area into another Bakken.
Don’t be complacent. It’s time to stand up and say, “Don’t Bakken the Beartooths.”