BILLINGS — The Billings Police Department is reflecting on the year 2020 - and the possible impact of the COVID pandemic on crime.
New data from the Billings Police Department shows a big spike in violent crimes within the last year, and compared to what the city usually tallies on crime stats - the numbers for 2020 are staggering.
Across the nation, U.S. cities are seeing a surge in violent crimes. According to a release by the FBI; within the first six months of the 2020 pandemic, murders were up 15%. It's an increase on par with Billings as officers have investigated 16 murders between January and November of 2020.
“Sixteen homicides for the year, which on average Billings is usually maybe two or three homicides,” said Lt. Brandon Wooley with BPD. “In some other spike years, we've been up to like seven eight or nine, but those years are few and far between.”
Other numbers show an increase across the board in violent crimes. Calls for domestic violence incidents were up 25%, incidents of assault on a police officer were up 50% and assaults with a weapon were also up 50% since the year before.
While police can’t pinpoint beyond the pandemic for sure as the reason for the increase in crimes, they say the impacts of COVID-19 have put all sorts of stressors on the public.
"They're spending more time at home with partners. That’s more likely to manifest into violence in the households,” Lt. Wooley said. “The direct correlations with people losing their jobs or not being able to work.”
However, police in Billings have been dealing with an increase in violent crimes for years. “It’s kind of like adding some gasoline to the fire, we've already been on an increase for violent crimes. We already have a significant drug problem like and now we add this on top of it and it just magnifies,” said Lt. Wooley.
Many times officers' hands are tied due to overcrowding at the jail. Back in August, MTN News reported extensively on how COVID-19 was impacting the already overcrowded Yellowstone County Detention Center.
Sheriff Mike Linder saying back then that the pandemic complicates the need for space and that an unforeseen consequence of the pandemic is a spike in domestic abuse calls placing the jail at capacity.
Although Linder said back then that violent offenders got to jail with no exceptions, Wooley says often officers feel like they’re pushing the problem around.
“We don't have any tools to deal with what's going on. And so, you just move the problem from here to there, and officers have found themselves dealing with the same person over and over and over again,” said Wooley.
While detectives are doing a great job in keeping up with the rise in crimes with all but just one homicide case, ‘cleared’ he says the detective unit is running thin, according to Wooley.
“The acuity of these violent crimes, the shootings, the homicides -- those take up a substantial amount of more resources and time and effort by our staff," said.
Voters in Billings approved a $4.2 million public safety mill levy measure in September allowing the city to avoid layoffs but didn’t ultimately add money to grow public safety.
Billings City Administrator Chris Kukulski said back then that the money would help lower crime rates in the city.
“Ultimately, that’s where we want to get. We want to see fewer victims," Kukulski said. "Those are the conversations that we will get into fairly quickly I think in late 2020 and early 2021 as to what’s next."
Looking ahead to 2021, Wooley says there are a few items they hope will take crime rate numbers back down; vaccine to slow the spread of COVID-19, the end of a hot political season and the police department hopes to get designated beds in the jail to accommodate the influx in arrests