Crime, Drugs and Enforcement

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This is the third of a five-part series on Minot at the end of 2018. It’s a snapshot of a community coming out of one of the most tumultuous periods in its history.

For Minot Police Chief Jason Olson, there’s a sense of déjà vu to his work and his community in recent years. 

The rapid growth brought by the oil boom. The meteoric rise in costs and taxes. 

The strain on the city infrastructure. The new faces and new money. 

And then the bust. The collapse of the oil-driven economy and oil-driven tax collections. 

Olson has been there. 

Twice. 

He grew up in Williston in the 1980s, right in the middle of the oil boom and bust in that area. 

He would later follow a career in law enforcement, a path that would eventually bring him to Minot. 

Where he would experience another oil boom and its impact on the community. 

“This boom and bust cycle in Minot has been slightly different than Williston’s,” Olson says. “Certainly the bust wasn’t as severe here as in the 1980’s in Williston. It was more of a slowdown.” 

Photo: Keith Darnay

A common element in what both Minot and Williston have experienced with the growth of the oil industry and population: Crime. 

“Our level of crime has certainly increased,” Olson acknowledges. “During the boom, there was a big influx of young males to feed the oil industry labor needs. Statistically, it’s just a fact that young males commit most of the crime. So if you bring in a bunch of young males into your area, it follows that your crime rate is going to increase.” 

In Minot, crime historically has been low, especially violent crimes. That changed as the community became a hub in the new round of oil development in the west. 

“We’ve seen a lot of folks that had criminal histories in other parts of the country that have gravitated to our area. We’ve seen folks that have gang ties on the East Coast or West Coast or Detroit, Michigan that all of a sudden find themselves in Minot, involved in drug activity in Minot or western North Dakota.” 

Drugs are a particular scourge in the Minot community these days. 

Image: Minot P.D.

“We’ve seen a pretty consistent meth problem for many years. But over the past several years, we’ve seen heroin and pills really tick up, which has brought along some of the issues with overdoses with opioids,” Olson says. “That was something we never saw before in Minot was a big heroin problem or a big problem with overdoses with opioids. I’ve been here for three decades. Back when I started, we never saw heroin, even going back probably six or seven or eight years, it was very rare to see heroin and now we see heroin on a weekly or daily basis.” 

And with that growing addiction problem, come the crimes to support those habits. 

“Everything from thefts to forgeries and shoplifting and some of the prostitution type issues and, of course, drug dealing.” 

In more innocent times, back in the 1980s, a few young people hanging out at a convenience store were called a “gang.” 

More often than not, the drugs of choice were cigarettes and marijuana. The crimes were underage smoking, petty activities, theft and burglaries. 

Murder was rare. Outside of the February 1985 Abernathy killings and the November 1987 grain elevator killings, murder in the Minot area was largely absent from annual crime statistics. 

Things changed as Minot grew in the 21st century. 

For example, between 2010 and 2016, criminal activity in five categories – murder, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and motor vehicle thefts – more than doubled in each category from the period 2003 to 2009. 

Image: Minot P.D.

Since 2016, those numbers appear to have leveled off as oil development has slowed – but, overall, crime is increasing at about 1.5 percent each year, according to department figures. 

That’s a lot of work for a department with 104 employees — 78 officers and 26 civilian support staff (16 of whom are in the dispatch center, coordinating calls for Minot, Ward County and area first responders). 

According to FBI data, the average American police department has 17 police officers per 10,000 population, and 21 total staff per 10,000. 

That comes out to 85 officers per 50,000, and 105 total employees per 50,000. 

The Minot Police Department is authorized to have 83 officers, so it would appear the department is well within the national staffing averages. 

But the department’s internal challenge has been in retaining staff. 

“Ever since the oil boom came, we’ve averaged 15 percent turnover per year, so we’ve had just consistent turnover of staff and constant training,” explains Olson. “So, we’ve been hiring about 12 officers per year, for six years now. In that six years’ time, we’ve hired the equivalent of the entire department in terms of manpower. We’re in a constant training cycle, constantly running at 85 percent of our authorized strength.” 

 A primary reason for the constant turnover is that salaries, benefits and raises in the Minot Police Department had not been competitive with other police departments in state and out of state. 

Fewer incentives remained for officers to stay, leading to turnover issues.

But things are improving at the end of 2018. Thanks to a comprehensive workforce improvement plan adopted by the city, along with a police department recruiting campaign that includes billboards and social media advertising, Minot’s law enforcement community should be close to or at full staffing at the start of 2019.

Despite the recruitment and retention challenges, despite the changing nature of crime in the community, Olson emphasizes Minot, overall, remains a safe place to live. 

“Statistically, nationwide, we are safe community, much safer than many other parts of the country. The quality of life here is outstanding.” 

Minot Mayor Shaun Sipma echoes the sentiment. 

“We’re still a very safe city,” he says. “You can walk down the street, by and large, on Main Street and not have to worry. But, we also can’t make ourselves targets for those that are looking for opportunity.” 

For Minot residents who have experienced firsthand the rising crime rates, the statistics are cold comfort. 

It’s not enough to know Minot has “normal” crime for a city its size. What can be done to reduce crime and the persistent drug problem? 

“That’s a good question,” Olson says. “Most of the problems with drug activity are driven by public demand or public consumption of the drugs and, to a large extent, that is out of our control as law enforcement. I mean, we can engage in education, but if people aren’t responding or listening, they make poor choices and we wind up dealing with the results of those choices in more of a reactionary mode. So, until society as a whole decides we’re going to turn away from a lot of the drug activity or drug demand, we are kind of stuck reacting to it.” 

Next: Where have you gone, Chet Reiten? When the former mayor led Minot, the community was peaceful, stable. Things just seemed to run smoothly. Why can’t today’s Minot be more like yesterday’s Minot?

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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