FARGO, N.D. — Top federal law enforcement agents who spent the last several days touring the oil patch in North Dakota and Montana came away comparing the scope of the crime problem to the cocaine cowboys of south Florida in the 1970s and ’80s and the heyday of street gangs in Washington and Los Angeles in the early ’90s.
Officials from seven federal agencies on the trip say they want to help state and local authorities who are doing most of the heavy lifting but are often bogged down by an onslaught of service calls for domestic disturbances, drunk and disorderly conduct, assaults and accidents. But they know they can’t promise the moon.
“Sometimes you can’t even promise them a sunset, because we are all constrained for resources,” said Scott Sweetow, special agent in charge of the Upper Midwest office of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “That’s one of the reasons we’re looking at a team approach. Together, we’re very strong. Individually, we are all facing the same budget woes and the same demands for law enforcement across the country.”
The partnership known as Project Safe Bakken has resulted in the FBI putting additional full-time agents in Minot, Bismarck and Sidney, Mont., and two temporary agents elsewhere in the oil patch. It also includes the promise of other agencies to lend more manpower and expertise in some individual cases, particularly on cross-border issues like organized gangs and drug trafficking.
“It probably doesn’t sound like much of a surge,” said Chris Warrener, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Minneapolis office. “But it’s what we can do within the current constraints that we have. It has kind of been an evolution on attempting to get a handle on an emerging crime threat.”
Some of the help from feds can be measured in miles. Austin Skero II, chief Border Patrol agent for the Grand Forks sector, said his officers rarely ventured south of U.S. Highway 2, which stretches from Grand Forks to Williston, before the oil boom. Now they occasionally help with calls as far south as Interstate 94, which connects Fargo and Dickinson.
“We’re backing up local police officers, local sheriff’s deputies, so that they can effectively enforce the law in their state,” Skero said. “These things continually shift, so you really never know where the threat is going to emerge next, but I think we can all agree that the activity is in North Dakota now and it’s probably going to be here to stay for quite some time.”
The increase in the number of police calls in northwestern North Dakota cities is startling, a North Dakota State University report shows. Service calls to Williams County have skyrocketed from 693 in 2008 to 2,400 in 2011. Watford City police received 41 calls in 2006 and 4,000 in 2011.
Officials attribute oil patch traffic to increased crime in South Dakota as well.
“Where we can make a difference, we’ve seen over the last few days, is in our staying power,” Sweetow said. “We don’t have to worry about whether we can cross a city boundary or a county line or even a state border. And we have the luxury, because we’re not going form 911 call to 911 call, to focus on crimes that are more complex; things that they simply aren’t able to tackle by virtue of their staffing.”
Warrener and Sweetow acknowledged that local law enforcement is right to be skeptical about the federal presence. It’s a typically conservative area that wants government to stay out of its business. Sweetow said local officials told him “without a lot of detail” that they’ve been burned before by federal agencies.
“They don’t want the feds to come in and make a lot of noise and declare victory and go home,” Warrener says. “I do not in any way want to create high expectations, especially in the austere budget times that we have.”
The idea for Project Safe Bakken grew first out of an FBI-sponsored meeting in Denver a year and a half ago and was advanced when Timothy Purdon, U.S. attorney for North Dakota, and Mike Cotter, U.S. attorney for Montana, held a meeting with local law enforcement officials on the oil patch.
Other agencies involved in the tour this week were the Internal Revenue Service, Secret Services, Homeland Security Investigations and Drug Enforcement Agency.
“We’re going to be in the upward part of this bell curve of increased criminal activity, and if we don’t get a handle on it now, it really will get out of hand,” Sweetow said.
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