by William Skink
I was listening to an Opperman Report episode the other day featuring a retired NY detective, Michael Codella. While the episode wasn’t really about his book, titled Alphaville: 1988, Crime, Punishment, and the Battle for New York City’s Lower East Side, the topic of fighting the heroin epidemic in NYC did come up, and it got me thinking.
Back then Codella described his beat as the epicenter of heroin trafficking in the states. People would come from all over the county to get the potent smack. Codella said back then junkies were easy to visibly identify.
Opperman and Codella then briefly discussed how the drug epidemic today is nothing like the problems that emerged in the 70’s ad 80’s, especially with opiates. Instead of people getting into the drug game to make money, it’s become a more widely dispersed, less centralized network of mostly small time dealers selling enough to supply their own habit. Instead of visibly identifiable junkies, it’s soccer moms and elementary school teachers.
There are still of course huge cartels that make tons of money, but a more widely dispersed network of dealers moves law enforcement further away from catching the big fish. It then takes much more work to climb the drug dealer food chain; tough, dangerous work that, because of the changing dynamics of US drug culture, could make the risks less worth taking.
So, where am I going with all this?
I’m trying to understand how a federal initiative created by John Ashcroft under Bush, and revived by Jeff Sessions under Trump, called Project Safe Neighborhoods, is playing out on the liberal streets of Missoula.
If you believe last June’s DOJ update, there has been two years of successful statistics to report since this initiative was revived:
For the second straight year, murders, robberies and aggravated assaults in Missoula County have decreased as law enforcement continues investigating and prosecuting methamphetamine trafficking, firearms offenses and armed robberies through Project Safe Neighborhoods, announced federal, state and local prosecutors today.
Crime statistics show that in Missoula County, these violent crimes decreased by 9.2 percent in the 12-month period ending May 2020. Overall, violent crime has decreased 25.7 percent since PSN was launched in May 2018, and 85 fewer people were the victim of a violent crime than in the 12 months before PSN began.
It might be difficult, when looking at numbers, to remember we are talking about human lives here. But that is the reason I am trying to understand this federal initiative, because I’m worried that some lives taken violently from this world aren’t being counted.
My online research has not produced much in terms of non-government analysis of PSN in other parts of the country. According to this local article from Macon, Georgia, PSN has three areas of focus:
1. Community based: Meaning that each local program is altered to fit the specific crime problem in that district
2. Targeted: Where local law enforcement and community intelligence use advanced technology to identify the most violent offenders to keep unkempt areas of the community clean and free of crime
3. Comprehensive: Connects federal and local law enforcement agencies to attack the crime head-on
On the Federal side of things, U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme’s office is the point of contact for Montana’s two participating counties, Missoula and Yellowstone. I spoke briefly with Claire Howard, the Public Information Officer, but since my interest is in local statistical reporting, she wasn’t much help.
As I was poking around online I found this article stating United Way would be involved in coordination efforts:
Law enforcement agencies and more than 30 non-profit and government organizations coordinated by United Way in Missoula County is working to develop a community plan to reduce meth demand through treatment and drug prevention. The community coalition is being called “Missoula Substance Abuse Connect.”
“Meth is overwhelming our courtrooms, our jails and our hospitals, it’s devastating families and kids, and it is nurturing the next generation of criminals and addicts,”Susan Hay Patrick CEO of United Way of Missoula County said. “We can and must break this terrible cycle by providing greater access to effective treatment and prevention.”
I know Susan from my work at the shelter, so I emailed her and she was gracious enough to respond.
Since Susan wasn’t speaking to me officially as the ED of United Way, I will just say that, generally speaking, United Way is focused on prevention efforts, so she wasn’t able to illuminate much regarding the crime reduction aspect of PSN. For that, everyone I talked to directed me to the County Attorney’s office.
I emailed Chief Deputy County Attorney, Matt Jennings, well over a week ago, and have yet to get a response. I doubt I’ll get a response because Matt is a very busy guy, especially now that his boss got this new gig:
The National District Attorneys Association has named Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst to its board of directors as a vice president and member of its executive committee.
“Pabst was chosen because of her leadership and long-standing commitment to criminal justice reforms and prosecutor well-being initiatives,” said NDAA President Nancy Parr. “We welcome her expertise and look forward to working with her.”
Pabst’s recent accolades stem from her acknowledgement that prosecutors (like lesser paid social workers) take on trauma as a result of the work they do, and to counter that they need intentionally facilitated methods of processing this trauma.
This became acutely apparent after the grizzly murders in Missoula where the psychotic assailants dismembered and partially dissolved the bodies of their victims in acid.
With this new national appointment further valorizing Pabst’s recent work, one has to be impressed with how she has successfully leveraged her fellow prosecutors traumatic experiences trying a brutal double homicide case into a professional stepping-stone, breathing new life into a career trajectory that could have ended after Missoula became a national focus of rape culture, thanks in large part to Kirsten Pabst’s LACK of focus on victims of rape and sexual assault.
Understanding Project Safe Neighborhoods and the players involved, like Kirsten Pabst, will continue to be a focus of my local reporting.
Thank you for reading, and stay tuned…