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As Bakken oil booms, police prepare for change

BILLLINGS — Booming oil production across a wide expanse of the Northern Plains is forcing law enforcement from the U.S. and Canada to gird for a spike in crimes ranging from drug trafficking and gun offenses to prostitution.

Officials say up to 30,000 workers could descend on the Bakken oil fields of Montana, North Dakota and Saskatchewan in the next few years.

The recent kidnapping and brutal murder of Sidney teacher Sherry Arnold has drawn more attention to the changes brought on by the rapid pace of drilling.

In the wake of the killing, federal prosecutors are holding a two-day retreat beginning Monday for police, border agents and other law enforcement to craft a common strategy to deal with rising crime. Two men are in custody in Arnold's case, which left local residents shaken and led to a rise in applications to carry concealed weapons.

The rural region is emerging as one of the top oil producing areas of North America.

"The population flux will naturally bring increased criminal activity to the area," said U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter. "It is imperative that our law enforcement establish open lines of communication between each other to ensure they are as responsive as possible."

In communities like Sidney and Williston, N.D., assaults, traffic offenses and other crimes are on the rise as drilling accelerates to meet the nation's strong appetite for domestic fuels.

The situation is exacerbated by a housing shortage that is spurring the construction of sprawling "man-camps" that can accommodate hundreds of out-of-state oil workers.

Government officials say the boom could last another decade or more as companies tap into a reserve estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to hold more than 4 billion barrels of crude.

The suspects in Arnold's killing — 48-year-old Lester Van Water and 22-year-old Michael Spell, allegedly traveled to the Bakken from Colorado in search of jobs in the oil patch.

Court records suggest Spell and Waters had been smoking crack cocaine and were living out of Waters' vehicle when they snatched Arnold off a Sidney street in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 7.

Industry representatives say companies go to lengths to ensure the workers they hire won't cause trouble — either on the job or in the community.

Drug tests and background checks are standard for many companies, said Kari Cutting with North Dakota Petroleum Council. She added that the lack of housing can quickly deter would-be workers who show up without a position already secured.

"The fact is that neither of the gentleman involved in that unfortunate crime were involved in the oil industry," Cutting said. "We do know there are challenges. Any opportunity has challenges that need to be overcome, and we want to be part of the solution in all this."


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