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Billings police say they're making progress fighting violent crime

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Posted at 5:45 PM, Mar 06, 2024

Billings police said they made progress in fighting violent crime during a press conference Wednesday afternoon, but they still have more work to do to solve the problem.

Chief Rich St. John spoke for about 30 minutes at the police barn at 4810 Midland Road, highlighting four homicide cases from last year, including three that happened during a 10-day span beginning at the end of October.

All of the cases discussed on Wednesday have since resulted in arrests, and St. John applauded his staff for the work they've done fighting crime in 2023.

St. John also showed a preview of what the violent crime statistics looked like in 2023. For the second straight year, the total number of violent crime cases has decreased, this time by a little over 3 percent to 2,908 incidents.

Those 2,908 cases involve all homicides, attempted homicides, sexual assaults, robbery, criminal endangerment and assaults.

"In 2023, everything listed in that left category adds up to 2,908, which is a 3.2 percent decrease from the previous year," St. John said during the conference. "That being said, we are one bad weekend away from having that trend up."

St. John said that his department is staying on high alert after witnessing how quickly things could change in October. During that time, the city saw six shootings and five deaths. Most of those cases involved youth gangs.

"None of these cases were related," St. John said. "Most involved juveniles and all involved weapons. Frankly, it made 2023 a historic and tragic year."

St. John said the most disturbing part of last year's crime was the age of the suspects.

"The age of our offenders was decreasing," St. John said. "Of the four cases I'm discussing today, of the juveniles that were present, the average age was 15 and a half years old. And when you add the few adults, it brought the age up to 18."

St. John said that issue became apparent to his department back in June, and it even has gained the attention of Montana U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich.

"Even though we have different jurisdictions, we are united in addressing this issue," Laslovich said at the press conference. "Prohibited persons possessing firearms, that's us."

Laslovich explained that his office steps in to prosecute crimes involving stolen weapons, while Billings police made small internal changes to combat the gang problem.

“I have the ability to reassign people temporarily and I happened to have a bonified gang expert from another department that came to work here," St. John said. "He’s the one that brought it to my attention that we had a bigger issue than I was recognizing.”

So far, St. John said their new strategies appear to be working. After making 40 gang-related arrests from June to the end of 2023, the department has already made 20 in 2024.

"I think the message is starting to spread that if you want to get involved in this stuff, you're going to be held accountable," St. John said.

It's progress that points in the right direction, but St. John said there is still more work that needs to be done.

"The only acceptable number of homicides or any violent crime is zero," St. John said. "We'll work for that goal, as lofty as it is."