Monday, March 20, 2023

Legislature should fund governor’s public safety budget

by Bryan Lockerby and Steve Lavin
| February 5, 2023 12:00 AM

Across the nation, the problems of illicit drugs and violent crime are growing – and Montana is not immune to what we would like to think is just a “big city” problem.

As the leaders of the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) and Montana Highway Patrol (MHP), we’re encouraged by the level of support we’ve received from elected officials like Attorney General Knudsen, Gov. Greg Gianforte, and some of our state legislators as the legislative session begins. The increased investment in public safety proposed by Gianforte in his executive budget will help us fight back against the increase of illegal drugs and the crime that accompanies them.

Montana is being flooded with fentanyl and it’s killing our citizens. The data for 2022 is still being finalized, but we know that anti-drug task forces in Montana seized twice as much fentanyl – 155,000 dosage units – in the first three quarters of 2022 than they did in the last four years combined. Deaths, overdoses or poisonings, and emergency calls related to opioids have all increased dramatically. In that same time frame, 172 pounds of meth were also seized.

Knudsen has dedicated additional resources to fighting the drug epidemic, but we need more. The three additional DCI narcotics investigators the Governor proposed in his budget will help us support local law enforcement and their communities as they face this ongoing challenge.

Human trafficking is a heinous crime and it’s happening right here in Montana. Last year, our agents tracked 106 cases of reported human trafficking — a 55 percent increase from the 68 in 2021 and up significantly from the seven cases tracked in 2015. There are only two state human trafficking agents to cover all of Montana, they need help to take on the growing case load. The four human trafficking agent positions that would be through the governor’s budget will help provide comprehensive coverage across Montana.

The increase in population and visitors to our state bring more calls for service and fatal crashes. Additionally, more and more traffic stops are leading to drug seizures and related crime. To respond, we need more Highway Patrol troopers. The governor’s budget proposal would provide five additional troopers to patrol thinly covered areas and help reduce the number of fatal crashes.

The governor’s budget proposal would also provide three agents to DCI’s Major Case Section which assists other agencies, particularly in rural areas, investigate their most serious crimes. These new agents will help the Division meet the increasing number of requests for assistance with murders, sexual assaults, and use-of-force incidents.

And finally, the budget proposal would help fund additional positions to combat a wide array of other crimes. For example, an investigator and prosecutor focused on the exploitation of vulnerable adult cases, an investigator who will work online child sexual exploitation cases, a manager for the Sex Assault Nurse Examiner Program to provide survivors with better care and improve prosecutions, and a coordinator to support the statewide Missing Murdered Indigenous Persons Program.

We are grateful to our state leaders who have listened and recognize the need for additional law enforcement resources. There’s no simple answer or solution to the complexity of fighting crime, but we must send the message to criminals that we won’t tolerate their illegal behavior in Montana.

As law enforcement leaders, we fully support the Governor’s increased investment in public safety and hope that our Montana legislators will do the right thing and make sure it’s funded this session.

Bryan Lockerby is a 40-year law enforcement veteran and Administrator of the state’s Division of Criminal Investigation. Colonel Steve Lavin is the leader of the Montana Highway Patrol, the agency he has served with for 31 years.

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