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ND oil field workers strain law enforcement in MT

In a time exposure photo, tractor-trailers leave streaks of light as they merge onto Highway 2 west of Williston, N.D. As thousands of workers and their families move in search of jobs to North Dakota's Bakken oilfield, nearby Montana communities' resourc
In a time exposure photo, tractor-trailers leave streaks of light as they merge onto Highway 2 west of Williston, N.D. As thousands of workers and their families move in search of jobs to North Dakota's Bakken oilfield, nearby Montana communities' resources are being stretched thin.
Billings Gazette, Larry Mayer, Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. — As thousands of workers and their families move to North Dakota's Bakken oil field in search of jobs, nearby rural Montana communities' resources are being pushed to the limit.

Housing, education and infrastructure are top government concerns regionally. But after the recent disappearance and apparent murder of Sidney high school teacher Sherry Arnold, communities also are looking closely at law enforcement.

"We have a lot of activity now in this part of the state," Sidney Police Chief Frank DiFonzo said in early January. "It was slowed down and more rural, and it's changing and I don't suspect it's just here. All communities on this end of the state are starting to see a pretty good change."

Sidney Mayor Bret Smelser recently met with representatives of the city of Williston, N.D., and the Williston Economic Development Project group, who estimate Williston's population will grow to 40,000 from 14,700 because of the oil boom.

Sidney is expected to double its population to 10,000. Smelser expects the growth in the next two to five years.

The Sidney Police Department has 10 officers with plans to hire another in March. The Richland County Sheriff's Office has eight deputies, including the sheriff, with one open position.

The city and county will need more officers to handle the growing demand for enforcement, Smelser said.

"The problem with the city is just the revenue stream isn't there," Smelser said. "It's a balancing act of maximizing our resources in the best possible way, and I think we are doing that."

Susan Quandt, chief of police in Fairview, about 12 miles northeast of Sidney, said the department's calls increased 35 percent from 2010 to 2011 and continue to rise.

Just as the number of calls have increased, so has the crime.

"Theft, burglaries of cars and houses — they have all gone up," Quandt said. "And fights — of course, those don't result in the involved parties wishing to have police involvement, but we still get called to them."

Fairview is right on the border of North Dakota and Montana in Richland County, about 35 miles southwest of Williston.

The Fairview Police Department has three officers, including Quandt. The increased calls for service along with more traffic issues have exhausted resources.

At least two or three times a day the main street of town is backed up with semitrailers going to and from the oil field.

Ray Trumpower with the Fairview Chamber of Commerce said traffic has tripled since the oil boom to 6,000 vehicles a day, and three-quarters of them are trucks going to and from the oil fields.

"That's a lot of heavy traffic through a small town," Trumpower said. "It cuts the town right in half."

City officials can't track the actual number of people moving into town. Many stay in campers, RVs and motel rooms, providing city officials few solid numbers.

The transient nature of the population raises the concern of tracking the sexual and violent offenders in the area. By law, registered sex offenders must notify law enforcement when they move.

Judy Beck, communications officer with the Montana Department of Justice, said the department is working with local governments and the human resource departments of the oil companies to identify sex offenders who have not registered with the state.

Some are labeled as transients, living in trailers in a store parking lot or at an RV park.

As of Wednesday, there were 102 registered sex or violent offenders living in Roosevelt County, eight of which were considered transient. There were 62 registered in Richland County, with four considered transient; and 42 in Dawson County, with five considered transient.

Beck said there was no way to track an increase or decrease of sex offenders in a given county.

"We don't have historical data showing how many sex offenders there were in a particular county at a particular time," Beck said in an email.

Beck said the Department of Criminal Investigation began a crime impact study on the Williston Basin in mid-December that aims to track the increase in crime and provide potential solutions for the cities and counties experiencing the rapid growth.

Communities farther from the North Dakota border are feeling the overflow as the closer communities like Sidney and Fairview fill up.

Alan Michaels, Glendive police chief, said most of the city's overflow is from the Sidney area.

"The town is pretty full," said Michaels, who leads a department of nine officers. "Obviously with the influx of people, you are going to have that same percentage of crimes. Our crime has increased, but so has our population.

"Proportionally, I don't think it's out of line from what I see."

The most noticeable change has been an increase in bar fights and domestic disputes. The calls for service in Glendive went from 8,000 to 12,000 from 2010 to 2011, according to Michaels.

"We're certainly going to have to look at the possibility of increasing (staff)," Michaels said.

But small communities come with small budgets, and though the Glendive Police Department would like to add an officer, it will have to pass muster with the city council.

"Everyone is tight on money," Michaels said. "Tight on money and tight on manpower, with this influx of people. ... If we can be a little bit ahead of the game, or at least with it, we can try to keep it under control."

Smelser said his hope is to go to the 2013 Legislature and negotiate getting more oil revenue to the cities affected by the Bakken oil field.

He said he will be pressing to get 5 percent of that revenue.

"Until we get that, we can't have a law enforcement (for this population)," Smelser said. "I just don't have the revenue to increase the law enforcement we need to increase it.

"I think educating Western Montana is key for us to be surviving out here," he said. "I know that our community wants more protection, and we want to give it to them, but I don't think I need to balance that on the backs of the people that live in the community, are retired or live on fixed incomes. That's a struggle, too."

Information from: Billings Gazette,