BILLINGS — Recent gang-like activity from multiple teenagers has Billings on edge.
Billings police said Wednesday two feuding teenage groups were responsible for multiple shootings in the past month, starting with an Aug. 15 shooting at MontanaFair and most recently with a drive-by shooting on Billings South Side.
Also Wednesday, a 16-year-old was charged with negligent homicide in the shooting death of 15-year-old Khoen Parker.
But the Billings Police Department is not calling any of these groups a gang.
"Absolutely not," Chief Rich St. John said emphatically Thursday. "These are groups of friends who have taken up firearms to deal with a dispute and their anger. These individuals don’t come anywhere close to meeting the requirements."
St. John cited Montana statutes that define gang affiliation. Criteria include three or more members and an identity linked to a specific color, name or symbol. But there’s one key for St. John as to why these groups don’t qualify.
"We look at a criminal enterprise, and automatically that means we’re looking at drug trafficking," St. John said. "We know that there are elements of the cartel up here. That presence is here."
St. John said it’s likely there are members of larger, national gangs in Billings, related to drug trafficking in the region. Former Yellowstone County District Judge Russell Fagg penned an op-ed in the Billings Gazette in May 2017 saying he believed there were between 300-750 gang members in the city. Years ago, Billings police brought in a specialist to examine if the city had a problem.
"The assessment was, ‘Not yet, but you’re headed there,’" St. John said. "It was based on graffiti that he had seen. The graffiti that we're seeing now doesn't have gang affiliation. It's more of tagging and the artwork."
While he isn’t classifying them as gangs, St. John does admit the BPD Street Crimes Unit is watching these groups carefully.
"Are they problematic? Do they fight with each other? Are they in groups? Absolutely," he said.
But he wonders why nothing is being done earlier in the process.
"Where are the parents?" he asked. "Where are the parents at when you've got 12, 13, 14 year-olds driving around the Northside shooting up houses, and the same down on the South Side. Where is the parental guidance? There’s obviously some dysfunction there.
"But to classify this as a gang problem, it is not that in any way shape or form," he said.
One thing is clear - it is a problem.