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Police work at the scene of a fatal stabbing at the Loaf 'N Jug on Mount Rushmore Road in January. South Dakota's violent crime rate doubled in the past decade, according to FBI statistics.

SIOUX FALLS | In the 1950s, it wasn't unheard of for South Dakota to log a single murder a year.

In 2017, the state saw two on the first day of the year.

Few would argue the halcyon days of unlocked cars with keys in the ignition are long gone in the state. But even the days of 2005 are a distant memory in terms of violent crime.

South Dakota may well be more dangerous than it's ever been.

An alarming combination of guns, drugs and addiction is largely behind the decadelong surge in the state's violent crime rate, which came as most states saw violence drop.

The Argus Leader reports that statistics and historians suggest the level of assaults, robberies and killings is unprecedented in the state, going back all the way to the Wild West.

South Dakota's violent crime rate doubled in the past decade to 383 per 100,000 residents in 2015, according to FBI statistics.

Deadwood during the gold rush was dangerous but not as violent as its lore, historians said, and illicit alcohol sales during Prohibition did not produce the kind of violence the methamphetamine trade has.

"People have had their heads in the sand and are not talking about the serious problems we have in our state," Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead said.

And Rapid City and western South Dakota have not been immune to the increase in violent crime. Whereas Rapid City had only two homicides in 2016, that followed a violent year in 2015, when there were seven.

This winter has seen a spike in violent crimes. The city has already experienced three homicides in 2017 — two fatal stabbings and a beating.

Officials from the federal government have also reported a spike in killings on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation this year.

South Dakota is still a relatively safe place, but its violent crime rate has spiked more dramatically than those of its neighbors. Violent crime rates in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wyoming either fell or increased slightly over the past decade, while North Dakota's and South Dakota's numbers climbed.

State and local officials blame a wave of methamphetamine trafficking that was late to arrive in South Dakota but has now established itself as part of a network of illegal drug distribution.

Alarming numbers

Annual crime reports from the South Dakota Attorney General's Office show dramatic increases in drug and violent crime totals over the past 10 years.

Statewide, officers made nearly 7,200 drug-related arrests in 2015, nearly double the number in 2005. Aggravated assault and robbery cases also doubled over the same time.

Some of the jump in aggravated assaults stems from a change in definition — the Legislature voted to classify choking incidents as aggravated assault in 2013 — but most of it is not. Even after the change spiked the numbers, the number has grown by 417.

Attorney General Marty Jackley said the factors behind violent crime vary but typically involve controlled substances.

The U.S. Attorney's Office, which handles high-volume methamphetamine cases, is prosecuting more of them. The number of federal-level meth-related prosecutions in South Dakota jumped from 24 in 2010 to 46 in 2015 after peaking at 57 in 2014.

In Rapid City, meth was involved in three of the four officer-involved shootings during police Chief Karl Jegeris' first two years in his job.

The meth increase has come without the aid of home labs. Instead, it's coming from out of state, Jackley said, alongside shipments of marijuana from Colorado, Washington and Oregon. "All three of those states have the same thing in common: They have legalized marijuana for recreational purposes," Jackley said.

'Everyone's armed'

The public's appetite for high-grade marijuana and methamphetamine has fostered a more violent drug culture in which buyers and sellers are more likely to arm themselves, Sioux Falls police Chief Matt Burns said.

"That seems to be the new trend: Everyone's armed," Burns said.

"Drug rips," in which one user or dealer robs another, motivate victims to arm themselves for future transactions out of fear of being robbed again, Burns explained. The robberies usually go unreported, below the radar of law enforcement until they become fatal.

Milstead started his law enforcement career with the Sioux Falls Police Department in the 1970s.

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"We had drug arrests back then, but the drug arrests would be four kids caught in a car with a baggie of marijuana," he said.

Comparing crime

James Cullen, a research and program associate at the Brennan Center for Justice, looked at South Dakota's crime rates and saw a clear trend.

"The fact that you're seeing robberies going up 20 percent in a year .... That's something you usually don't see," he said. "It's notable that this is not just a one-year blip."

Adjunct professor and author Jon Lauck, who works by day for Sen. John Thune, compiled a list of South Dakota homicides using data from the FBI for a memo on the state's murder and violent crime rate. The memo wasn't part of any particular project but was born out of historical curiosity and informed by what the author of seven books on Midwestern history knew from his work on the state's past.

"It was really a peaceful place," Lauck said.

His memo showed some years in the 1950s with a single murder — a stark contrast to the annual figures seen today.

Prohibition, Wild West

Charles Vollan, a professor of history at South Dakota State University, is researching a book about Prohibition in the state.

Accurate figures on violent crime in South Dakota before 1930 are nearly nonexistent. Much of Vollan's research on crime in the 1920s comes from newspaper archives and annual reports from the State Sheriff, a short-lived law enforcement agency dissolved in 1933.

Comprehensive tallies of violent crime in those years don't exist, Vollan said. Not all local agencies submitted reports to the State Sheriff's office, and homicide figures are restricted to those investigated by the state agency.

The Daily Argus Leader reported on arguments that rising crime was a reason to repeal Prohibition, but it also reported police arrested about a third as many people in 1930 as they did in 1916.

"With Prohibition, crime did go down (a classic prediction by the drys), but people felt that in the Prohibition era crime increased," Vollan said.

That's not to say that Prohibition wasn't tied to violence. There were high-profile murders, including the killing of two federal agents in Spink County. Journalist Chuck Cecil's book about prohibition, "Astride the White Mule," described the 1927 ambush as "the most abhorrent occurrence during the state's long Prohibition era," one that turned the state against a continued alcohol ban.

The other historical era in South Dakota tagged as violent in the popular imagination is the "Wild West" of the late 1800s, typified by Deadwood during the gold rush in 1875-79.

"There's always a debate about how violent the Wild West was," Black Hills State University professor David Wolff said.

Based on his research from city archives and newspapers from the era, Deadwood was less violent than TV might suggest, Wolff said.

Wolff counted around 35 violent deaths — not counting attacks by Native Americans — during the 45 months between the discovery of gold in Deadwood Creek and the fire that destroyed the city in 1879. That amounts to one violent death every six months.

"In an area of 10,000 people, that's pretty high," Wolff said.

Even so, Wolff said, the rest of the state was far more harmonious. Deadwood was a destination for seekers of gold and fortune, Wolff said, most of whom were young, male and prone to heavy drinking.

Modern parallels

Wolff's point on the space between the danger to the average South Dakotan and those who sought gold is not without a current parallel.

Today, homicides usually involve drugs or alcohol and happen between people who know one another. Robberies and assaults also tend to involve acquaintances.

"Unfortunately, drug use happens all over our community. Addiction has no regard for financial circumstance," said Burns, Sioux Falls' chief. "There have been these instances in those outlying areas."

If the city hopes to reverse the trend, Milstead said, it will take more than policing.

"Unless we get our drug trafficking and our drug addiction under control," he said, "this is the kind of thing we're going to be dealing with."

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Bart Pfankuch of the Journal staff contributed to this report.

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