BILLINGS - After two drive-by shootings in Billings in two days, Billings police leaders are speaking publicly about their to manage an uprising of gang activity.
Dealing with gangs is now one of the strategic objectives of the department.
Police Chief Rich St. John said Tuesday the problem with gangs is on the cusp and described it as “bubbling,” but it’s not at the point where it's unmanageable.
“We’ve always had these individuals present,” he said. “They’ve been active more or less.”
He says gangs exist in Billings in a variety of ways, including motorcycle gangs or those organized by race, but for the most part, most have been lying low.
That's until recently when Billings experienced a surge of crimes involving juveniles. It's organized crime that’s been identified and tracked but seemingly getting more brazen.
“People are quick to say it's gang-related. Well, an individual pay act unilaterally and he may be affiliated with something, that doesn’t necessarily make it gang-related,” he said.
Knowing the difference is exactly what Billings police are equipped to do, identifying those gangs, tracking their members, their territories, and their scorecards.
The force is also armed with what St. John refers to as “content experts,” who have the experience level and expertise to track gangs.
“Simple intelligence gathering on who’s claiming to be what,” he said. “It gives us a picture of what group they’re claiming to be affiliated with.”
A turning point happened over the past two summers when St. John says they’ve been tracking an uptick in violent crimes and a major indication of gang activity seen in graffiti.
“The graffiti is a message,” he said. “And then you are starting to see some of the messaging back and forth.”
That back-and-forth messaging turns into retaliation and violence and in some cases, has led to innocent bystanders at the mercy of getting hurt.
“We need the community’s help as well, we need to know when things pop up,” he said.
He encouraged community members to remove graffiti when they see it, after reporting it.
“You have to get rid of it, whether it's graffiti or tagging because if you leave it, they own it,” he said.
It’s an issue prevalent in many cities across the country. Billings is not immune, and gang activity is a problem that St. John says has surfaced before.
“If you ignore it, you will have a problem that is insurmountable, and we will be looking like one of the big urban cities.”
So, he’s allocated a plan to deal with it and an adjustment he says is slight, for now.
“All I did was basically re-task our street crimes unit, which was doing street crimes and say, hey - little more attention over here and added a resource and that was it,” he said.
It's known as proactive policing, which means seeking out crime instead of not being reactive to it.
The plan doesn’t take officers away from responding to calls, but it means the street crimes division is working to gain intelligence and an officer is now focused largely on gangs.
“One way we are successful at preventing crimes is with our proactive units, unequivocally,” said St. John.
There are no resources drawn away from patrol responsibility, according to the chief. He says that continues to be the number one priority.
But a conversation with St. John comes on the heels of yet another round of shootings in Billings, where police haven’t specified yet if it's gang-related. On Monday morning, a home on North 20th Street was struck by gunfire. Two days earlier, an 11-year-old girl was struck in the shoulder in a drive-by shooting while she was in her South Side home.
Caught in the crossfire, is how a Billings South Side mother describes her neighborhood.
Tonya Ludwig lives in an area she says is riddled with gang activity.
“It is gangs, this is just not kids who have beef with each other,” she said.
Ludwig even lost her son to what she says was gang influence.
“It’s too close for comfort,” she said. “We need to stop this before it gets out of hand. It's already out of hand.”
St. John understands the concern and says it’s a goal everyone can agree with.
“Yes, we have gangs here,” he said. “But no, we are not at that level where it’s completely out of control and there’s no way that we can manage it."