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What's really going on with Billings gangs? It may not as alarming as first thought

Billings Gazette - 2/24/2024

Feb. 23—Last fall's string of homicides left Billings residents struggling to make sense of a wave of senseless violence, and gangs were part of the explanation provided by law enforcement.

When this open-ended label, with associations far beyond the city limits, collided with fear and grief, it became ripe for speculation — just ask anyone who has heard public comment at a public safety meeting in the past few months.

Were these gangs trafficking drugs? Were they affiliated with infamous gangs from other places? Were they running rampant in the schools?

The answer is no, no, and no, according to the Billings Police Department, which is not to make light of them. Police officials point to the fact that juvenile gangs of Billings have proven themselves to be reckless and dangerous, with members of juvenile gangs connected to three of five of November's homicides.

There are both adult and juvenile gangs in Billings, but the juvenile gangs are more connected to violent and gun-related crimes, including assault with a weapon, robbery, and stealing firearms from vehicles, according to Sgt. Ryan Kramer, who leads the BPD's Street Crimes Unit.

"We rarely see situations of violence or criminal acts" from adult gangs, said Lt. Matt Lennick, a spokesperson for BPD.

BPD classifies gangs based on the state's definition: an "organization, association, or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal...having a common name or common identifying sign or symbol, and whose members individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal street gang activity."

The juvenile gangs meet this standard, but don't participate in turf wars or even have stable membership.

Tara French, director of Youth Probation and Parole, described the gangs as "friends for the day" and Kramer said members "jump from one to the next."

"There's no hierarchy or organized effort," Kramer said.

"Actual gangs have discipline, structure, and management," said Val Weber, director of the county's youth jail. "Gang wannabes have no discipline."

These gangs have a penchant for social media, where they proclaim their affiliations, post photographs of themselves with weapons, and bicker with rival gangs.

"Social media is prevalent, they like to go back and forth on social media," Kramer said.

On the contrary, adult gangs in Billings "keep a lower profile," according to Lennick.

As part of the investigation into last year's carnival shooting, "BPD detectives were able to track the whereabouts of both firearms before and after the April 29 shooting through witness statements and social media accounts," according to charging documents.

A suspect was charged with tampering with evidence, after deleting photos of the juvenile who has now been charged with homicide with the weapon used in the shooting.

One of the two firearms involved in this homicide was stolen, charging documents state. Last year, 198 firearms were stolen from vehicles in Billings, according to BPD.

"I don't know if more youth have guns or are more willing to use them," French said.

In 2021, the county had 26 juvenile cases of assault with a weapon, which can include any kind of weapon, as well as DUIs involving an accident. In 2022, there were 60 cases.

Despite the public attention on gangs, overall violent crime in Billings was down in 2023, BPD Chief Rich St. John said during a February "Coffee with a Cop" event. The exact percentage will be released in the department's annual report this spring.

"You wouldn't know that from looking at the headlines," St. John said.

"The biggest thing we're dealing with right now is perception," he said when announcing the same information at a January meeting of the Citizen Police Advisory Board.

As with overall violent crime, gang-related crime has also been down, according to Kramer, because of high-visibility enforcement and arrests from last year's homicides.

"It's a misconception that it's out of control," Lennick said.

Kramer described gang-affiliated youth as looking for connection, as well as "trying to be cool." French echoed this, especially when it comes to the prospect of going to Pine Hills, the state's youth prison in Miles City.

"It's become a status symbol," French said. "Prison used to scare people."

The government or justice system may not decide what's cool and what's not, but changes to the law could make theft of a firearm a more serious offense.

Under current state law, theft of a firearm is a misdemeanor — the same as shoplifting — though it's a felony under federal law.

"It would be helpful in the law to give us something to deal with it," Kramer said. "There's not a whole lot to go on to hold them accountable."

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(c)2024 the Billings Gazette (Billings, Mont.)

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