The number of homicides in North Dakota reached an all-time high in 2020, according to the annual crime report released Wednesday by North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.
It’s the second consecutive year the statistic has set a new mark. The reasons aren't clear, though Stenehjem said it doesn't appear the pandemic was a factor.
The state had 32 homicides in 2020 -- up from 26 in 2019 -- which is the highest number since the state started compiling statistics in 1978 “and probably the most serious we’ve ever had in the history of the state of North Dakota,” Stenehjem said.
Twelve of the homicides were the result of domestic violence and many of the rest were the result of “drug deals gone bad,” Stenehjem said. Firearms were involved in 15 of the deaths. Four of the victims were minors.
Homicide numbers have trended up in the past few years but could drop back to or near average -- about 12 -- this year. As of a week ago there were four homicides in the state, and in the last week three more deaths have occurred that could be charged as murders. If that pace continued, the annual total would be about 14.
"It does roller coaster," Stenehjem said. "When you have as few offenses like this as we do in North Dakota, you have to be careful to make sure you're looking at long-term trends."
Stenehjem said the impact of COVID-19 on crime is hard to categorize and the pandemic will likely be analyzed for years to come.
“I do not think the pandemic had anything to do with the rate of homicides in North Dakota,” Stenehjem said.
The 2020 homicides were not concentrated in the state’s oil patch, Stenehjem said. Two occurred in Williston, one was in Stark County and two were on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
Seven of the 2020 deaths -- some 20% -- occurred in Ward County, which accounts for 10% of the state’s population. There were two homicides in Burleigh County and one in Morton County.
Aggravated assaults -- which saw a 13% decline in 2019 -- rose 10% in 2020 to 1,371. Simple assaults also increased, going from 6,062 in 2019 to 6,180 in 2020.
Drug and drug equipment arrests continued a positive trend that started in 2018, dropping by 5.4% and 2.1%, respectively, last year. It’s another category in which the pandemic’s effect is hard to judge, “but I can tell you our drug agents were not working from home,” Stenehjem said.
Arrests for DUI fell by 13.5% in 2020, which continues a trend that started in 2012. That’s the year the 24/7 Sobriety program and more serious criminal penalties were put in place. Offenders placed in the 24/7 program are tested daily for alcohol use. Anyone who fails is arrested immediately.
Identity thefts rose dramatically -- from 515 to 1,412 -- spurred by false unemployment claims.
“A lot of that was coming from out of state,” Stenehjem said. “Computer gangs, cyberhackers who are skilled at making claims for unemployment, taking and getting the money and keeping it.”
The theft of motor vehicle parts soared by more than 127%, spurred in part by an increase of catalytic converter thefts. The devices contain valuable precious metals that remove pollutants from exhaust but also give them considerable value as scrap items. The state Legislature in the 2021 session voted down a bill that addressed the issue, a move Stenehjem said surprised him.
“I think we need to do something more ... increase the penalty but also make it more difficult to transact the business,” he said.
An increase in the number of negligent manslaughter charges is explained partly by a recent change in the definition. Deaths caused by impaired or distracted drivers are now included. There were 10 deaths in that category in 2020, up from two in 2019. Six people were killed by impaired drivers and two were killed by distracted drivers, Stenehjem said.
Overall, crimes against property rose nearly 8% in 2020. Just more than a third of the $38.2 million worth of stolen property was recovered by law enforcement, according to the report. Crimes against persons rose 2.6%.
Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com