BILLINGS — A shooting early Wednesday morning near downtown Billings was the third shooting in five days within the city as assault with a weapon cases continue to rise rapidly.
The numbers paint a worrisome picture. There were 134 total cases of assault with a weapon in 2019. In 2020, that number rose 66% to 223 cases. But in 2021, an enormous jump — 393 cases through mid-December, triple the amount from just two years prior.
"While we would like to have an officer there at that moment to prevent those things from happening, that's not the reality," said Billings Police Department's Administrative Lieutenant Brando Wooley. "We've only got anywhere from nine-to-12 officers on at any given time. We can't be everywhere in the city."
Billings police say they do not have nearly enough staff to be able to handle the increase.
"For example, from the shootings this weekend, that’s basically all our detective's division is working on now, even days afterwards," Wooley said. "They're trying to follow up quickly on leads."
No arrests have been made in either case yet. When there are charges, the cases will be turned over to the prosecutor’s office, which also is extremely understaffed.
Felony court filings were actually slightly down in 2021 compared to 2020, but Yellowstone County District Attorney Scott Twito said that’s because the worst offenses and offenders are bogging down the system and that they actually received more case referrals from law enforcement that they haven’t had time to get to yet.
Twito said he is adding more prosecutors to his staff to try and keep up, "I'm looking for more almost weekly."
We know Billings police will add 28 new staff after November’s Public Safety Mill Levy passed, but that will take two to three years. When they get hired, it will help with what Wooley calls the department's best strategy.
"Having our resources focused toward proactive activity is when we see a deterrence of crime," he said. "Over the years with the increase in call loads and the seriousness in the types of calls, our officers have been more geared toward reactive policing."