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Meth down, crime up in state

Against the backdrop of the Alfonzo Rodriguez Jr. trial and last week's discovery of a murdered 22-year-old Valley City University student, the attorney general's recent report showing there was a decrease in methamphetamine arrests across North Dakota last year seems like cold comfort.

Maybe a more appropriate lead would be something like, "Violent crime in state increases."

Statewide crime stats show the total number of violent crimes, including murder/non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault, increased by 13.9 percent in 2005, the largest increase since the year 2000. West Fargo Chief of Police Arland Rasmussen even admitted: "It seems we are up in assaults a little more than other years."

However, the state is ranked as the safest state in the nation for violent crime per capita.

"This is one of the reasons people look to move to our area in general," Rasmussen said. "It is interesting how people seek excitement, but only want that for a short duration of time. When they look at settling down and raising a family and what they want for their everyday lives, they often return to the Midwest because of the overall great benefits our part of the country has."

I've heard of Minnesota nice. What about North Dakota nice? Anyway, with North Dakota being the least violent state in the republic, for me to focus this column on the increase in violent crime would be inappropriate, I think. The number of violent crimes reported was 600, up from 528. One quarter of those arrested for violent crimes were juveniles.

Comparatively, violent crime in Minnesota, our neighbor with about 4.3 million more people living there, increased as well. There were 15,536 violent crimes, according to the Department of Public Safety crime information report for 2005.

In North Dakota there were 13 murders; in Minnesota there were 125 criminal homicides.

"Violent crimes still comprise less than five percent of total crimes reported, allowing North Dakota to keep its position as the safest state in the nation," Stenehjem reported.

Overall, last year in North Dakota 12,563 crime index offenses were reported by local law enforcement agencies, a 4.1 percent increase from 2004. The total number of arrests reported increased from 29,372 to 30,759.

Crime index offenses include the violent crimes of murder/non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault, and the property crimes of burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft.

Now let's talk about meth. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies are so committed to eliminating this drug that it was assigned the public enemy status of a terrorist in 2005 when the "Combat Meth Act" was included in the USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act. Bet you never thought that fighting meth in your neighborhood and fighting terrorism would go hand-in-hand. Our Senators did, and they voted for the reauthorization last March.

President Bush signed the bill into law on March 9, 2006. With current state laws, it further restricts retail sales of over-the-counter products containing pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, both used to manufacture methamphetamine.

After the number of meth lab busts increased 1,433 percent between 1995 and 2000, in 2005 that number decreased more than 80 percent. Furthermore, the number of arrests for the drug category which includes meth decreased by 45 percent, from 477 to 260 in 2005.

"Meth cooks can't get what they need to make meth. New federal laws, which took effect earlier this year, will make it even harder for criminals to manufacture meth," Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem declared.

On the flip side, maybe meth users and manufacturers may have just gotten smarter and developed prowess at avoiding the law, but I doubt it.

West Fargo Officer Jason Hicks serves as a narcotics investigator. He follows up on all cases involving illegal drug use.

"From what I have seen, meth-related crimes are somewhat down," he said, noting that it's more difficult to manufacture/produce. "But we still have a large amount that is 'imported' from outside North Dakota."

Hicks is on the Cass County Drug Task Force, an agency that allows collaboration between the area's law enforcement. The Cass County task force encountered five meth labs. That's not to say there aren't still a lot of illegal drugs on the street. Drug Task Force stats show that in 2005, they initiated a total of 114 cases, and they assisted another agency on 84 cases. They executed 54 search warrants; arrested 107 people; seized 2,660 grams of meth, 322 grams of cocaine, 293 grams of crack cocaine; and 16,333 grams of marijuana; seized $61,966.10 in currency; and six firearms (five were meth related).

"The trends change constantly," Hicks said. "I gauge our effectiveness with the prices. If meth prices are up we are making progress."

The slowdown in meth crimes has made room for the abuse of other illicit drugs.

"We have seen a rise in cocaine arrests compared to years past," Hicks said, adding that marijuana use and arrests are about the same.

Total drug arrests in North Dakota increased in 2005 by 8.7 percent. Rasmussen reported that contrary to the state trend, West Fargo drug violations declined. WFPD stats show the total number of drug violations decreased from 241 to 217 in '05. Through July '06 there have been 130.

"West Fargo continues to be a very good community," Rasmussen said.

Well said, Chief.