HELENA – A new Montana Department of Justice program has hit the streets aimed at cracking down on organized crime.
The DOJ’s ‘Aid Montana‘ initiative, or Addressing the Impact of Drugs, secured $1.7 million for the biennium through the 2017 Legislature to launch a Montana Highway Patrol criminal interdiction team.
The legislation that helped secure funding for this new program came from House Bill 2 in which Republican Senator Frederick (Eric) Moore from Miles City sponsored an amendment to create a dedicated interdiction team.
“We deeply appreciate this kind of backing from our state leaders. It validates that what we are doing is right and necessary to save lives, reduce addiction, put bad actors in jail and keep our state safe,” said Montana Division of Criminal Investigation Administrator Bryan Lockerby.
The Aid Montana Initiative is broken down into subcategories, and this new criminal interdiction team fits in with the enforcement aspect of the program. Other subcategories include monitoring, treatment, prevention and drug endangered children.
According to MHP’s 2015 annual report, the number of illegal drug arrests by MHP has increased 547 percent since 2010.
“Clearly, substance abuse, particularly illegal drug use and arrests, are an increasing part of the work being conducted by the Montana Highway Patrol,” an Aid Montana report said.
This six person team made up of highly trained MHP troopers and Division of Criminal Investigations agents. The teams will also have two specially trained dogs helping them find drugs being trafficked across the state.
The team will be split into two units – one in the west stationed at the Missoula High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) headquarters and east team stationed in Billings with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency- with hope of stopping large-scale illegal operations.
Included in the Aid Montana report issued in September 2017 is data that shows, “Between 2012 and 2016, the MHP overall felony drug arrests increased 336 percent.”
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, along Lockerby both said this is a collaborative effort to stop not just drug trafficking, but also human trafficking, the recovery of illegal or stolen firearms and apprehend wanted fugitives.
“Our agents will not only focus on our highways, but will also work transportation corridors in Montana,” Lockerby explained. “Whether it’s air, rail or mail, our goal is to impact criminal activity by disrupting the supply chain.”
“The overall effort is to save lives, not just in Montana but in other parts of North American essentially because we are also a corridor for both Mexico and Canada,” mentioned Fox.
Lockerby also explained these teams will use intelligence gathering collaborating with surrounding states to identify trends and possible patterns.
“We might get bulletins about possible new smuggling methods that might occur that were seen in California that are starting to trend in this direction,” he added. “We’re also getting information about certain kinds of drugs that are starting to get transferred, something new that we’re seeing, and we immediately put that information out to local law enforcement and notify the troopers, work directly with that interdiction team so that the next time they have a suspicious vehicle they’ve stopped they can start to look for areas where those drugs might be concealed in a new way.”
Montana Highway Patrol Colonel Tom Butler said during a press conference Tuesday that he feels it is an honor to be a part of this new program and made it clear how important he feels this work will be in stopping criminal trafficking through the state.
“Criminals are at their most vulnerable during transit and vehicles are often the weakest link in any criminal organization. The traffic stop is a critical tool for intercepting offenders, preventing dangerous contraband from hitting our streets and finding critical information to forward to our law enforcement partners,” Butler said.
Montana is a large state with thousands of miles to cover, which could be daunting for this team. But, Butler said this goes back to the collaborative mentality the state has when it comes to stopping this large-scale criminal activity.
“The geography of the state brings lots of challenges to it and no one agency is able to solely focus or solve this problem,” he explained. “Everybody sort of understands the importance of this and works together; whether that’s in Petroleum County or Yellowstone County or anywhere in between, everybody understands that issue and we all work together because the simple square miles and highway miles lead to a challenge to tracking this type of stuff so cooperative efforts all around.”
While impending possible budget cuts have some agencies worried about a loss of funding, Fox assured this new team should not be subject to any potential cuts.
“The funding is primarily highway patrol money which is not general fund and as you know the budget cuts are targeting general fund money only so we don’t anticipate any cuts to the criminal interdiction team,” Fox explained.
Funding for this team kicked in July first and after starting work at the end of August, there have been several successful operations.
“We won’t be able to tell you exactly what those techniques are or where they are going, but I can tell you that these teams have already seen tremendous success,” Fox said with conviction. “As we work further down the supply chain if you will and start taking down some rather high level individuals along with our federal, state and tribal partners, we think will see less and drug and human trafficking.”
As these teams begin their work, Attorney General Fox and Col. Butler have one message to criminals.
“I have a message for you – ‘Stay out of Montana. We will be looking for you and if we find you, the punishment will be swift and severe’,” Fox adamantly said.
“To any criminal thinking about traveling through or operating in Montana, be forewarned – you are not welcome here. That’s not just the Highway Patrol looking for you, it doesn’t matter what the badge or the uniform we wear, Montana’s law enforcement are united in our commitment to find you,” Butler added.
A state-wide summit is scheduled for November to bring together months of listening sessions held by the Montana Healthcare Foundation, DOJ and other stakeholders to discuss moving forward with programs as part of the Aid Montana initiative.