Perhaps no state has benefited as handsomely from the oil boom as North Dakota has from the Bakken Shale.
Before the oil crash began in November, the state projected $8 billion in revenues from 2015-2017. As early as 2010, the average wage in the oil and gas extraction industry in North Dakota was more than $90,000, 141.5% more than the statewide average.
Yet in western North Dakota, some longtime residents called oil company workers “oil field trash” and “rig pigs.”
Tensions have thundered into the Bakken region like a giant hauler truck on a two-lane road. As the flow of oil and money began to prop up the state’s economy, it fueled a population boom. Traffic increased, housing was difficult to find, fights became more intense.
A rise in crime has been blamed on the oil companies, but even as production slackens crime continues.
With workers’ wages high wages, traffickers in drugs saw an opportunity. Violent crimes such as aggravated assault and forcible rape have also increased, particularly in counties where oil production is prevalent. Cases in the remote Bakken area can be difficult to solve, and staffing at local law enforcement agencies has not matched the increase in residents.
“The crime in the Bakken is not just a Montana problem or a North Dakota problem,” said U.S. Attorney Michael W. Cotter in the Montana District. “It is truly a regional problem—an evil that affects everyone in Montana, North Dakota and our friends in Saskatchewan.”
Drugs in particular have become a scourge. Along with white-collar criminals, human trafficking and environmental lawbreakers, crime has escalated so badly that local and state law-enforcement agencies were knocked back on their heels.
In 2013, Carol Archbold, a criminal justice professor at North Dakota State University, interviewed police about the affects of the oil boom. The officers in the study, “Policing the Patch” were identified by number only.
Officer PO 3 said violence had become more widespread since the oil boom.
“The people that were trouble back in their homes states are now our problem. There is a lot of tension between the longtime residents and the new people,” the officer said.
Along with illegal substances such as K-2, Spice and “bath salts,” heroin and methamphetamine trafficking has soared in North Dakota.
Despite the dip in oil prices and the swift fall in rigs in the Bakken, the state’s oil-producing region remains home to scores of criminals. In June, U.S. attorneys in North Dakota, Montana and other states, along with the FBI, formed a new Bakken Organized Crime Strike Force.
Arrests for drug offenses increased 17.7% to 4,000 in 2014 from 3,399 the previous year, according to North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.
“Perhaps the most serious concern is the worrisome increase in drug arrests. Not only are the total arrests for drug offenses up by almost 18%, but we also know from reports from law enforcement that the drug arrests involve more serious drug activity,” Stenehjem said.
Since 2013, at least 10 drug trafficking organizations have been dismantled. More than 200 people have been indicted or convicted of federal narcotics charges.
Many thought that after oil production dipped that the state, and particularly the oil-producing counties, would see a reduction in crime or an effect on crime, Archbold said.
“A lot of the law enforcement officials that I’ve talked to don’t believe that that’s the case,” Archbold said. “Based on their calls for service load and also the reported crimes, they believe there really hasn’t been much of a change with regard to crime.”
The reason crime hasn’t changed dramatically may be that there is no link–at least not one yet established–between production and criminal activity.
Oil production ebbs and flows, and “of course it drops like we’ve been experiencing, but that doesn’t mean people immediately leave the area.
“Some oil companies are doing due diligence” with criminal background checks, she said. “It is possible some are being more lenient when it comes to their standards.” Archbold said that if companies need labor they might be lenient with their standards, but without facts and scientific research no one knows.
In fact, population growth may be a more likely cause for the increases in crime, Archbold said.
History Of Violence
The citizens have become more guarded. – officer interview.
Statistically, North Dakota remains one of the safest states in the union.
The oil patch is a different place filled with noise, movement and violence. Many people are simply unknowns.
From 2011 to 2014, the U.S. Marshals Service in North Dakota coordinated four sex-offender compliance checks with state and local agencies in the Bakken region, completing more than 375 case assessments and 71 investigations on reported, unregistered sex offenders.
Since the oil boom, arrest statistics show that some of the best oil-producing counties in North Dakota have seen spikes in violence, including rape and aggravated assault.
In the Williston Basin region, criminal activity increased 32% in six years beginning in 2005. Through 2011, violent crimes such as murder, forcible rape and robbery increased 121%.
In a five-year period the caseload at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of North Dakota has mushroomed by 166% in western North Dakota, to 336 in 2013 from 126 in 2009.
In the North Dakota attorney general’s assessment of crime committed in 2014, the state saw a 1% drop in aggravated assaults. It was the first decline in 11 years. But in the state’s oil counties, aggravated assaults were up. In 2014, nearly 32% of all aggravated assaults were in the oil counties compared to 30% in 2013.
Aggravated assault involves serious bodily injury to the victim or when the offender uses or displays a weapon in a threatening manner.
Oil development in the oil fields in northeastern Montana, northwestern North Dakota and southern Saskatchewan brought an influx of jobseekers. Between 2005 and 2012, the population in the Williston Basin region grew 17% as more than 20,000 jobs were created.
“This influx of highly paid oil field workers into an area with limited opportunities for spending their income has created a market for drugs and contributed to an overall increase in crime,” Montana U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter said in Congressional testimony.
McKenzie County, N.D., grew by 18.3% in 2013, leading all counties of between 5,000 and 9,999 people, according to a March report by the U.S. Census Bureau. Williams County, N.D., was the nation's fastest-growing county among populations of 10,000 or more in 2013. Williams’ population increased 8.7% from July 1, 2013, to July 1, 2014. McKenzie is the leading oil-producing county in the state and Williams is fourth.
Oil field workers also had few places to spend their handsome paychecks. Organized crime arrived with heroin and methamphetamine to take their money.
There has been an increase of dirt bags, or whatever you want to call them, coming here and they bring more drugs — officer interview.
In the years before the boom, Montana-based organizations controlled much of the drug trade in the Bakken area, according to March 2015 congressional testimony by Bryan Costigan, director of the Montana Analysis and Technical Information Center.
But they were soon pushed out as outlaw motorcycle gangs and Mexican drug traffickers infiltrated the areas for “ownership” of the drug trade and prostitution, according to the Obama Administration.
Three of the U.S. Marshals’ four most wanted fugitives in North Dakota face drug-related charges, including organizing distribution of narcotics.
In 2013, federal, state and local law enforcement created the task force Project Safe Bakken.
It met with solid results. In June 2013, 22 people were arrested on drug-related charges, followed by the arrests in October of four people in North Dakota and 12 in Montana.
But by the summer of 2015, it was clear that even with a slowdown in oil the Bakken remains teeming with drugs, violence and firepower.
In August, the Bakken Organized Crime Strike Force netted its first high-profile drug bust. The task force’s work resulted in the indictment of 29 people on accusations of transporting methamphetamine to North Dakota and/or money laundering.
One of the men, Michael John Gietl, had a small arsenal of firearms, including a 9mm pistol, a Winchester rifle, a Beretta .22 short-caliber pistol and five other firearms. Gietl has previous convictions for possession of cocaine, possession of cocaine for sale and possession of a deadly weapon by a felon.
In a news release, Richard Thornton, FBI special agent in charge, said his agency is committed to the security of the Bakken area of North Dakota.
“We will continue to aggressively investigate organized crime wherever it may be found,” Thornton said. “We will work with our law enforcement partners through the Bakken Organized Crime Strike Force to ensure that those who engage in this type of criminal activity pay a high price.”
The U.S. attorney for North Dakota did not respond to a request for comment. It’s unclear what impact the arrests will have.
Law Enforcement ‘Overwhelmed’
Some people have taken to calling western North Dakota the new Wild West.
That’s a misconception, Archbold said.
“It’s just a much busier place,” she said. “The numbers of people caused increases in certain types of crimes. But not violent crimes like homicides and sexual assault.”
Despite the money filling coffers at the state and local levels, police felt their departments were understaffed. Often this has meant officers will neglect more personal policing methods and even wave off minor offenses to save time.
Nearly all of the agencies in the “Policing the Patch” study employed high numbers of officers who were recent graduates from academies in Minnesota and North Dakota. About 65% of the officers had relocated from Minnesota for their jobs.
Archbold’s study included western North Dakota police agencies such as the Williston Police Department, Tioga Police Department and the McKenzie and Williams counties sheriff departments.
Eighty percent of those surveyed said the oil boom had affected their job, and nearly half said calls to offices had dramatically increased. Forty-seven percent stated that they are busier because of the increase in calls for service from the public.
“People use 911 like it is 411,” said an officer identified as PO 5. “This requires that one officer do the work of two or three people.”
Construction zones made traveling to sites difficult, and maps in the city and county changed monthly as different oil camps were set up.
Another officer said that community policing had fallen by the wayside while another said the reality of the oil boom made the officer “manage the number of people I arrest.
“Right now, we have to pick and choose arrestees,” the officer said. “Years ago we would arrest people in two seconds for things that we would not arrest for today. There is simply not enough room for everyone in the jail.”
In 2011, Williston Basin law enforcement agencies saw calls for service at more than 600 calls per officer, with four departments registering 1,000.
At the Williston Police Department, calls for service quadrupled to 15,954 from 3,796, according to the North Dakota State and Local Intelligence Center.
However, staffing did not meet demand in the state’s fastest growing city.
About 20% of the officers interviewed said that they were more cautious in their work.
“I started this job during the oil boom,” PO 96 said. “My safety consciousness has increased. There are violators from all over the country with different backgrounds. There are more domestic violence calls and calls about threatening behavior. These types of calls demand more from an officer (safety wise).”
Other officers said bar fights had intensified.
“They have become more violent. We now bring in multiple officers to bar fights,” an officer said. “This shows the people what to expect if a bar fight breaks out. I try to treat all people the same, but I have a somewhat different approach when it comes to dealing with newcomers.”
PO 19 said so many fights and other incidents meant waving off less serious calls.
“I give a lot of warnings to people instead of writing tickets,” PO 19 said. “I am less likely to take action to save time.”
Some officers said the boom had created job security.
“The economy is strong because of the oil boom. Also, people do stupid stuff. And because of that I have a job,” said PO 15.
Another officer said the department is overwhelmed.
“We are always playing catch up. Some days I feel like the dam broke. The other day I had to stay for eight extra hours,” PO 81 said.” There are too few of us to handle such a large increase in population. There are not enough cops to handle what is going on.”
Archbold sent her 72-page report to the attorney general and the law enforcement agencies.
“Since the report, I know that there have been resources that became available to police departments to hire more people,” she said, adding she has tracked hiring after report came out. “People began to focus on police being so short-handed. In October (2013) suddenly money became available for other positions.”
Contact the author, Darren Barbee, at email@example.com.
Homicides And Fatalities In The Bakken Region
Even after the oil boom, murders remain rare in North Dakota.
In 2014, the state reported 19 murders, up from 14 in 2013. However, the state’s low rate of homicides and relatively small population can result in significant fluctuations year to year.
Homicides make up 0.2% of crimes in the past 20 years. The state has averaged 12 homicides a year.
Selected fatalities, 2011-14.
- June 2014 – A Bakken oilfield worker was thrown from a platform being pulled by a vehicle and was killed after sustaining severe head trauma. The driver, another field worker named William Flint, fled the scene before returning an hour later. Flint, who is accused of being intoxicated at the time, is facing charges, the Billings Gazette reported.
- 2013 – In one case, former pharmacist Ben Willard Hunn distributed Vicodin, Xanax and other drugs to a 29-year-old woman without a prescription. The Montana woman fatally overdosed in 2013. Hunn is serving a 48-month sentence after he pleaded guilty, according to federal court records.
- July 2012 – A 27–year-old oilfield worker is shot and killed in Plentywood, Mont., after pointing a firearm at law enforcement.
- July 2012 - An 8-year-old boy and his 5 year-old brother were killed when they were run over in a North Dakota campground. Also injured in the crash was the boys’ 28-year-old father. The family had traveled to North Dakota to visit the father who was employed in the oilfield. The individual who was driving the vehicle that hit the family is believed to have been drunk at the time of the incident.
- January 2012 - The body of a 49-year-old oilfield worker was found in a roadside ditch in rural Roosevelt County, Mont. A 46-year-old co-worker from Florida has been charge with the death.
- January 2012 - A schoolteacher from Sidney, Mont., was kidnapped and murdered. Her body was later located near Williston, N.D. Two individuals who had traveled to the Williston Basin region to look for work in the oilfield have been charged with the murder.
- March 2011 – A 28-year-old oilfield worker is alleged to have stabbed and killed a co-worker at a hotel in Minot, N.D. Both the victim and the suspect were from Texas.
- January 2011 – The bodies of four individuals are discovered in two separate residences in Ward County, N.D. A 27-year-old oilfield worker is charged with the murders.
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