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A Quiet Violence
by Dan Gunderson and Cara Hetland
April 2000

Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

In 1993 there were three methamphetamine lab busts in Minnesota. Last year 111 labs were raided, more than half were outside the metro.
Violent crime rates are falling in big cities across the country, but some experts say there are signs urban crime is quietly moving to rural areas. Crime statistics are often unreliable because there is no required uniform crime reporting, but police says drug traffic is increasing at a rapid rate. They fear the spread of drugs will bring a corresponding increase in violent crime.

Minnesota counties are spending more money fighting crime, but many rural counties say they are falling behind in the fight against crime.

TODD TAYLOR says many rural Minnesotans would be shocked if they knew just how much drug traffic was flowing through their backyard. "You can get whatever you want wherever you want in this state," Taylor says.

He should know. He's a drug agent for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He says marijuana has long been the drug of choice in small towns, but now the rapid growth of an underground methamphetamine industry is bringing the darker side of the drug world to rural areas. When agents recently busted a rural meth lab, they were puzzled to find a dog in the backyard - stabbed to death

"This individual noticed the dog looking at him and he thought the police had bugged the dog, so he took it out and stabbed it," Taylor says. "Then he brought his young child out, still with the knife in his hand. He told the child, 'See what happened to the dog? That's what'll happen to you if you talk to the cops.'"

In 1993, there were three methamphetamine lab busts in Minnesota. In 1999, 111 labs were raided, more than half were outside the metro. A quarter of Minnesota's population lives outside the metro.

Narcotics agents say there's no way to know how many meth labs go undetected, but they say it's likely they see only the tip of the iceberg. Todd Taylor says drugs are more easily available because drug dealers are moving their stash houses, where they store drugs, out to small towns. "They've found if they take their stash house and move it to a rural area, they're safer," says Taylor. "I'm sure they feel safer and they are safer because you don't have the police presence."

Police in St. Cloud and Moorhead recently broke a drug-distribution operation set up by members of two Chicago gangs. Agents say it's difficult to work undercover in a rural area because a strange face immediately attracts suspicion. Most dealers won't sell to anyone who hasn't been cleared through a network of friends.

How Drugs Change Rural Minnesota
North Dakota State University criminologist Tom McDonald says if unchecked, drugs - like methamphetamine - could dramatically alter the social fabric of rural areas. "Meth has some signs of growth and spread similar to what happened with crack cocaine in urban areas in the 1980s," he says.

Drug enforcement resources are limited in rural areas. Many counties have pooled their resources and formed drug task forces. Three or four agents may team with state and federal agents to cover a half-dozen counties, but in some areas there are fewer narcotics agents than there were 15 years ago.

Sheriffs and small town police rarely benefit from special federal crime-fighting funds, which are generally targeted at large urban areas where most people live. A recent decline in urban drug traffic has caused federal and state policy makers to shift their focus and funding to other issues.

A poll of more than 400 rural Minnesotans conducted for Minnesota Public Radio found 74 percent of those surveyed believe drug abuse is a serious problem . A majority of those polled also listed crime as one of the top two issues in their community.

Drug Use Common?
In many small towns, if you want to know about the local drug network, the high school is a good starting point. Several kids have been in trouble at some time for substance abuse. Yet all say it's very hard to quit when all your friends are using.

A recently-published national study says rural teens are 104 percent more likely to use methampetamine and 70 percent more likely to get drunk than their urban counterparts. The most common reason? Boredom.

Rural Minnesotans polled for MPR believe underage drinking and drug use are serious problems in the state's rural communities. A strong majority say drug and alcohol abuse and a lack of parental control are the main causes of crime in their community.

On a Saturday night, a Clay County deputy stops a pickup truck for speeding. Inside are two teenagers headed for a lake cabin with a 12-pack of beer and two bottles of hard liquor. The driver tells Lieutenant Matt Ciros he stole some of the alcohol from his dad; the rest he got from a friend.

Lieutenant Ciros is unsuccessful in finding out who bought the booze. The teens haven't been drinking, so they get off with a ticket for being minors in possession. It'll cost them $80 and, Lieutenant Ciros hopes, lead to a serious conversation with parents.

But counselors say too often teens face no parental consequences. Substance abuse counselor Lisa Vig says kids and adults deny substance abuse is a problem. In some cases, parents sanction alcohol at parties and argue that since kids will drink anyway, it's safer if they drink at home

"While rural areas today have less crime than their urban counterparts, they also have more crime than they did in the past, and their crime problems are serious."

- Joe Donnermeyer
Ohio State University
She says because many adults drank when they were young, they view teen drinking as a right of passage - it's what teens do. Vig says while drugs remain largely underground, alcohol is often celebrated as part of the historically rough-and-tumble rural life.

"It's so much more socially acceptable to sit around and smoke cigarettes and drink a few beers." Vig says. "You just don't take a needle and inject cocaine or snort cocaine. There's a clear separation in the minds of most people from rural communities that alcohol is not a drug, it's a beverage. A drug is something you do if you live in Chicago or Minneapolis."

Drugs and Crime
A U.S. Department of Justice report, which says drugs or alcohol are used by 75 to 80 percent of criminal offenders and law-enforcement officials around the state, draws a clear connection between alcohol, drugs and crime. Minnesota sheriffs estimate 80 to 90 percent of the cases they investigate involve substance abuse. People are either high when committing a crime or they're stealing to support their habit.

Often those cases involve property crime. Teenagers stealing alcohol recently smashed their way into two-dozen lake cabins in Becker County. In neighboring Clay County, authorities recently solved a series of burglaries when one young man drowned while fleeing police; a second suspect killed himself. The sheriff says the burglaries helped support a methamphetamine habit.

Burglar alarms are becoming more common among the isolated lake homes and rural farm fields. A rash of burglaries drove "Margy" to install double-dead-bolt locks and a burglar alarm in her home on a northern Minnesota lake. Thieves broke into a storage shed and smashed a window on her home. "I just felt violated," she says. "It was very disconcerting. I felt much better after the security system was installed."

Rural Minnesotans polled by MPR are three times more concerned about property crime than violent crime. That sentiment is also reflected in what Becker County Commissioner Carolyn Engebretson hears from constituents. "They're not talking about violent crimes, they're talking about break-ins, or losing their car," she says. "Sometimes it's because they left the keys in their car, but we used to do that. That's a new concept coming to rural people - that maybe you should lock your doors. And the very act of locking your doors means you're not safe."

Who Feels Safe?
It's easy to understand why rural residents don't feel as safe, says Joe Donnermeyer. The Ohio State University sociologist says rural communities have changed dramatically in the past two decades. Main Street used to be a place where people lived and worked. Now, a growing number of residents are commuters.

"You do have a greater apprehension as you're at work all day, as you pick up your kids at the consolidated school, as you drive 40 miles to the nearest shopping mall," Donnermeyer says. "All the lifestyle of commuting makes you more vulnerable to crime."

Donnermeyer says fear of crime starts a vicious cycle. People withdraw from interaction with neighbors they no longer know or trust. As they become more isolated, the entire community becomes more susceptible to crime.

Yet even as many rural residents lock their doors and close their blinds, Donnermeyer says national research indicates there is a clear tendency among those residents to resist the notion that urban crime is coming to rural America. "The belief among rural people that they live in a better place than urban people - more green space, more privacy and a belief in less crime and those values rural people have - leads to denial about the issue of crime because to admit that means you have characteristics of urban areas and that's not where you want to live."

"Becky's" husband was an alcoholic who kept her isolated, penniless and battered for seven-and-a-half years. Becky says she tried several times to reach out for help, but when a social worker came to see her, Becky changed her mind and hid her problems. Listen (RealAudio 28.8)
Rural Minnesota's Dirty Secret
Denial, alcohol, and drugs all contribute to what may be the most under-reported violent crime in rural Minnesota: domestic violence.

"Becky" is a 47-year-old mother of four. Because she fears for her safety, she asked us not to use her real name. She was pregnant when she married her first husband 26 years ago. They moved to a remote northern Minnesota farm house with no electricity or running water. It was 10 miles from the nearest town.

Her husband was an alcoholic who kept Becky isolated, penniless and battered for seven-and-a-half years . Becky says she tried several times to reach out for help, but when a social worker came to see her, Becky changed her mind and hid her problems.

The violent beatings continued, often triggered by a crying baby. "First he was beating my breasts and I was nursing," she says. "I bent over to protect my breasts, and then he beat my back - pounded it so bad I was paralyzed. I couldn't move, couldn't turn over, stand, turn my head. I was very scared and thought that this was it for life. I'm never going to move again. What was I going to do? I can't even pick up my baby."

Becky's story is not uncommon. A 1998 study of domestic violence in rural Minnesota found nearly four in 10 women are beaten. Abused women are often unable to call 911 because they can't get to a phone, or may not have one. Since neighbors live miles apart, no one hears the violence, so no one reports it.

Some women are afraid to call for help; they fear what will happen to them in the 20 to 30 minutes it takes for a sheriff's deputy to get there. When the first deputy arrives he's likely to face a potentially-violent scene alone. In many cases the nearest backup may be a half hour away.

Some rural counties may have four or five deputies on the road, others only one or two.
Meth Lab Busts in Rural Minnesota
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On a typical night in Clay County, it's not unusual for a domestic, a bar fight, or a traffic accident to occupy all four deputies for several hours. Sheriff Larry Costello says that means other crimes, like drunk driving, don't get the attention they deserve.

By comparison, in neighboring Becker County, DWI arrests jumped 40 percent last year after the county received a grant to pay deputies overtime to target drunk drivers. Clay and Becker counties are not isolated examples; DWI arrests in rural Minnesota vary widely by county, but experts say in general a higher percentage of people drink and drive in rural areas than in big cities.

Drunks in the Tank
Drunk driving is one of the reasons many Minnesota's county jails are bursting at the seams. Cracking down on drunk driving means more people serving longer sentences. Becker County sheriff Tom Hunt says in his county, more than 100 convicted criminals are waiting for an open jail cell.

"It causes alot of sleepless nights," Hunt says. "We have people who call in weekly to see if they can serve their time. Some people forget about us and don't call anymore, and then we have to issue a warrant when we have room and go pick 'em up. It's very frustrating and time consuming. It drives the jail staff nuts."

The average daily jail population in Minnesota is about 5,200, or twice what it was in 1985. Many counties say they need new jails but can't afford them. County sheriff department and jail budgets are up more than 40 percent since 1993. Statewide, counties spent nearly $600 million last year on public safety.

Despite recent high-profile cases in rural Minnesota, violent crime is down in most counties. But the public is demanding tougher penalties for crimes like drunk driving and vandalism. Becker County Commissioner Carolyn Engebretson is president of the Association of Minnesota Counties. She says it's frustrating to watch budgets for crime and punishment eat up so much revenue that there is little left for programs that might prevent crime.

"It's almost double-dipping into the tax dollars because prevention costs money but so is taking care of the problem you didn't prevent," Engebretson says. "So you don't see the results of prevention until down the road and people want immediate results which may mean locking people up."

"It's just that nothing big has popped off in the news, but we know there's this simmering, like a crock pot, there's a simmering going on," says Sioux Falls psychologist J.C. Chambers. Listen ( RealAudio 28.8)
U.S. Department of Justice research indicates alcohol and drug abuse is implicated in more than 70 percent of all crime. While Minnesota counties spent nearly $600 million fighting crime last year, a small fraction of that is spent on drug- and alcohol-prevention programs. Programs are scattered through various state agencies, and no overall numbers are readily available. But an examination of agency budgets indicates about $80 million is spent on drug- and alcohol-prevention and treatment programs.

There are often waiting lists for access to treatment programs, and in rural areas the closest program may be an hour or two away.

County sheriffs say substance abuse is clearly the biggest problem they face, and one for which they have relatively few resources. One officer tells of a person who ignored a court order to get substance abuse treatment. No one noticed, until the man was arrested for another crime.

People who abuse drugs and alcohol are often repeat offenders.

While violent crime rates continue to fall nationwide, some experts say rural crime may not follow that trend. There is less crime when economic times are good, but some experts predict if drug traffic continues to spread to economically-depressed rural areas, the result will be a jump in violence that will shock and frighten many residents.

Sioux Falls psychologist J.C. Chambers shares that concern. "It's just that nothing big has popped off in the news, but we know there's this simmering, like a crock pot, there's a simmering going on," he says.

Many people say they live in rural Minnesota because it's a quiet, safe place to raise a family. But that image may be changing. Forty-four percent of rural residents recently polled by MPR think crime is rising, while half that number say there's less crime.

Rural crime may not be headline-grabbing drive-by shootings or street-corner drug deals, but it is the increasing violence of methamphetamine labs, a rising number property crimes and an alarming rate of domestic abuse. It 's a quiet violence, and if it's not acknowledged and confronted, it may destroy the tranquility that rural Minnesotans treasure.