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Officials say increased crime rate could be tied to opioid epidemic

Drug syringe and cooked heroin on spoon. iStock.com/FotoMaximum

North Dakota had some of the most drastic rises of violent and property crime in the country between 2006 and 2016, according to a report from the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Some officials say there could be a correlation between increased opioid use and an uptick in crime.

Violent crimes nearly doubled between 2006 and 2016 in North Dakota, the report said. In 2016, there were about 251 violent crimes committed per every 100,000 residents. This increase is the second-largest in the country, though North Dakota's violent crime rate still remains 35 percent below the national average.

Reported robberies and aggravated assaults more than doubled, the report said.

The state saw about a 15 percent rise in property crime, though the overall rate still was lower than half the country. Motor-vehicle theft increased 63 percent and burglaries rose 14 percent, the report said.

"There's probably a myriad of reasons for it. I think a good part of it is that we've just had an increase in the drug side of the world," Grand Forks County State's Attorney David Jones said. "If you go back and trace the homicides, the attempted murders, the aggravated assaults over the past number of years, a great many of them are attributed back to drug issues that have arisen."

The use of opioids has drastically increased during the last 10 years. In 2010, there was on average 3.4 deaths per 100,000 people in North Dakota that were related to drugs. By 2016, the average number had risen to 10.6 drug-related deaths.

It's impossible to attribute the increase in crime to one factor, but it could be partially tied to what many have called an opioid epidemic, Grand Forks Police Lt. Derik Zimmel said.

"It's not a problem we can arrest our way out of," he said. "And that's why we have been working so hard to connect with the community and talk about the issue."

Drug use is cyclical, and throughout history there have been spikes in usage of a particular drug, Zimmel said. The opioid epidemic is especially troublesome because of the high potency of substances like fentanyl, he said.

Increased drug abuse also has impacted the child-welfare system drastically, Jones said. The number of children in the foster system now because their parents are struggling with addiction is higher than he's seen it in over 25 years, he said.

"We know that those numbers have gone up a great deal over the last five years. When you look at those numbers, they're almost all triggered back to drugs and alcohol," Jones said. "In particular now, with the drugs coming through—you've just got parents that are no longer capable of taking care of their kids, so that cycle starts."

Crime trends within Grand Forks echo the rest of the state, Zimmel said.

The violent crime rate remained steady from 2015 to 2017 but is higher than in the past, the 2017 annual report from the Grand Forks Police Department said. The average is 26.7 percent, higher than it was for the previous seven years, the report said.

Property crime in Grand Forks decreased 3.6 percent from 2016 to 2017, though it was still 16.5 percent higher than the previous seven-year average.

"It's certainly something that's going to get our attention," Zimmel said. "And we're going to continue to monitor it, and it affects some of the things we do as an agency and our collaboration with community partners and some of the messages we try to get out there to people. So we're going to be attentive to it and be as responsive as we can, but at the same time, we're a law enforcement agency and we're here for the public safety, and we're going to do what we have to to enhance that public safety."