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North Dakota oil boom attracts crime

| Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015, 6:06 p.m.

WATFORD CITY, N.D. — Police Chief Art Walgren knew how much the oil boom had changed this once sleepy town when he spotted something that would have been unheard of not long ago: license plates from Sinaloa, Mexico, home to one of the world's most violent drug cartels.

Before, there was little chance police would see cars here from nearly 2,000 miles away and little reason to worry about out-of-state plates. Now, though, officers are scrambling to deal with new kinds of suspicious activity and threats that have cropped up along this frozen prairie.

The gusher of oil and money flowing from the Bakken fields has made policing more demanding and dangerous, forcing small-town officers, county sheriffs and federal agents to confront everything from bar fights to far-reaching methamphetamine and heroin networks and prostitution rings operating out of motels.

“It's not Mayberry anymore,” U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon said. “Our police and prosecutors are going to have to adapt to keep pace. We have organized criminal gangs selling drugs, sex trafficking and out-of-state flim-flam men coming in. And the cases have become more and more complicated.”

Most newcomers to the Bakken — which spans western North Dakota, eastern Montana and part of Canada — move here honestly in search of a job or, in some cases, a new life. But more people means more crime, overcrowded jails and overwhelmed police departments, often with relatively inexperienced officers racing from call to call.

“We are responding, but we need to have more cops, more prosecutors and more judges,” Purdon said. “We can't expect to move an incredibly large number of cases through the same machinery that's been in effect for the last 20 years.”

Reinforcements are on the way. In November, the FBI announced it will open a permanent office in the Bakken — time and location to be determined — joining other federal and state law enforcement agencies helping local police crack down on newly emerging criminal enterprises.

“There used to be a saying that 40 below keeps out the riff-raff,” said Steve Kukowski, Ward County sheriff. “That's not true anymore.”

Not all crime is on the rise. In North Dakota, the number of murders dropped in 2013, but drug arrests increased nearly 20 percent compared with 2012. In Montana, oil patch arrests rose by 80 percent between 2008 and 2012, according to state Attorney General Tim Fox.

In Watford City, the police force has multiplied from four, including the chief, in 2010 to 19 sworn officers serving a population that could grow to 15,000 by 2017, a nearly tenfold increase since the last census. Even more dramatic: In 2006, there were just 41 calls for service, according to a 2013 North Dakota State University study. Last year, there were 7,414.

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