Law enforcement officials saw the effects of a struggling economy and the arrival of sophisticated computer technology, used to both commit and combat crimes, on the rise in the past year.
Lovell Police Chief Nick Lewis and Big Horn County Sheriff Ken Blackburn both noted an increase in domestic violence, especially during the recent holiday season. They also noted an increase in Internet crime, drug use, sexual crimes and property crimes.
“I think any increases in larceny, theft and domestic abuse crimes we are seeing right now go hand-in-hand with the economic times,” said Blackburn. “People are feeling the pressure, and in some cases are using drugs and alcohol, which compounds the problem and leads people to make bad decisions that get them in trouble.”
“People are definitely a lot more stressed these days,” said Lewis. “We’re seeing a lot more domestic violence cases now than we have in the past 10 years, especially during the holidays. It seems like the people are always medicated or impaired when we arrive, and I think it is the stress that they are feeling in their lives that leads them to become impaired and then they will just fight about whatever. ”
Blackburn expressed his concern about increased drug use and sexual crimes, especially molestation crimes against children, noting that every single deputy on his team has had to investigate some sort of sex crime at one time or another since they have been with the department.
“We are making great strides in this area,” said Blackburn. “We have a great team working together for the good of the victims. This includes the crisis advocacy group CARES, the County Attorney, Department of Family Services and others.”
He added that he is seeing more citizens, especially third parties, having the confidence to come forward to report suspicious activity than ever before, and that the increase in reporting has directly resulted in arrests for sexual crimes and domestic abuse.
“I think people trust us more and I think people will see something or hear something and they are more likely to report it than in the past, even if it’s an anonymous report,” said Lewis.
“These are deeply troubling social problems,” said Blackburn. “We have worked for years to gain the trust of people who have come forward to report these sorts of crimes. I think we’ve accomplished a lot because of their help, and have been able to help victims as a result.”
“It used to be that we’d respond to domestic violence calls and just try to separate the parties, but now we know, through education, that domestic violence is a circle that needs to be broken and now we know that until that circle of violence is stopped, it’s going to continue and escalate,” explained Lewis.
Blackburn also noted that because these cases are highly confidential and often sealed by the court, they do not appear in published police and sheriff’s reports. Nonetheless, his department spends what he referred to as “the lion’s share” of their time investigating these types of cases.
“We are also focusing on improving the quality of our investigations into these types of crimes to build better court cases and to make things safer for our youth and other victims,” said Blackburn, who proudly maintains a zero tolerance policy with regard to any kind of sexual crime or domestic abuse.
Both Blackburn and Lewis reported a marked increase in the use of the Internet and other technological resources by criminals.
“We’ve had reports of robbed identity, where our hands are tied in terms of what we can do for the victim, because the crime was committed by criminals contacting their victims from off shore locations by telephone or through the Internet,” said Blackburn.
One common scam that Blackburn and Lewis have both seen recently involves elderly people receiving telephone calls and being asked to send money overseas via Western Union to bail out a relative (often a grandchild) who is on vacation.
Blackburn explained that the FBI is receiving about 2,000 reports of this type of crime per day and is unable to investigate this type of criminal fraud on a timely basis, which leaves most victims out-of-luck after they send the money or release credit card information or details about their identity.
He explained that criminals from foreign countries routinely surf Internet social sites trying to find bits of information about people who are on vacation. They also find ways to hack into unsecured computers to steal credit information and emergency contact information. They use this information to conjure up stories about relatives who need help and to make “too good to be true” offers to unsuspecting victims, usually through Email or telephone calls.
Lewis said that his department has citizens calling in weekly or even a couple times a week reporting that they have received a bogus check in the mail, a scam phone call or a scam Email.
“We get constant calls of this nature,” said Lewis.
Although Lewis has received fewer calls about actual hacking than Blackburn, he warns citizens to secure their networks, because unsecured Internet connections make them vulnerable to this type of crime.
“People prey on other people’s desires,” said Blackburn. He advises citizens that if someone offers a great deal that sounds too good to be true, it’s probably a scam.
“The second you respond to these Emails by logging into a website, they attach spyware and cookies to your computer,” explained Blackburn. “It takes an average of about 30 seconds for the average computer user to be tracked.”
Another Internet related crime that the Sheriff’s department is seeing is the use of unsecured networks to surf child pornography sites. He warns citizens who maintain an unsecured Internet connection that their IP address can be tapped into by someone sitting in a vehicle located outside of their home or business who is using a laptop computer to access the Internet or to hack into personal information on their computer.
He noted that even the Sheriff’s department had an attempted “hack” a few months ago. Fortunately, the system is set up with massive security measures and the attempted intrusion set off “alarms and whistles” before that hacker was able to enter the Big Horn County Sheriff’s system.
Both Lewis and Blackburn have seen an increase in the severity of juvenile crimes in recent years.
“We take juvenile crime very seriously,” said Lewis. “I think the sooner a child knows that bad behavior has a consequence, the greater the chance that they will quit repeating the behavior. I think enabling a child is the worst thing a person can do.”
Law enforcement agencies are taking advantage of advanced technology to fight crime. The Lovell Police department introduced a sophisticated new communications system last year to that end, and both agencies are coordinating their efforts with other organizations to build better cases and help victims.
Special grants for educational programs and enforcement have dramatically decreased DUI arrests.
Community education and outreach programs like the “Life R U Ready” program that was held at Lovell High School last year, the on-going bicycle safety program and the prescription drug take-back program have all helped police officers, deputies and citizens learn about the problems we face today, and how to be part of the solution.
By Patti Carpenter