Study shows just how violent Bakken became as oil drilling surged in North Dakota, Montana

An oil jack extracts crude from the Bakken oil field in western North Dakota. Forum News Service
An oil jack extracts crude from the Bakken oil field in western North Dakota. Forum News ServiceForum News Service

FARGO — The notion that crime boomed in the Bakken as oil development took off is nothing new. But a study released this month by the Bureau of Justice Statistics offers a detailed look at the spike in Oil Patch violence.

Counties in Montana and North Dakota that contain the Bakken shale formation saw their violent crime rate jump 23 percent from 2006 to 2012, according to the study. The violent crime rate dropped by 8 percent for the surrounding region during the same period.

The bureau provided federal funds to RTI International, a nonprofit research organization that analyzed FBI data for the study, to see if there was a correlation between increased populations in the Bakken and crime, RTI research analyst Nick Richardson said. The time period was chosen because researchers wanted to look at years — 2006 to 2008 — before an oil boom brought rapid population increases to the Oil Patch from 2009 to 2012.

The violent crime rate in the Bakken didn’t start to climb dramatically until 2009, according to the study. Researchers found that a crime rate of 105 per 10,000 people in 2006 rose to 130 per 10,000 in 2012, surpassing a rate of 124 in 2012 for non-Bakken counties in Montana and the Dakotas.

“The increase in violent victimizations in the Bakken region counties was not part of a broader increase in violent victimizations reported by law enforcement across Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota,” researchers said in the study.

Women vs. men

The rate of violent crime against men in the Bakken region surpassed the non-Bakken region, with the former jumping 31 percent from 2006 to 2012, or a rate of 90 per 10,000 males to 118, the study said. The latter dropped 10 percent from a rate of 116 per 10,000 males to 104 in that time frame.

The increase in the Bakken region for men was higher than that of female violent victimization, which only climbed 18 percent from 2006 to 2012.

However, the rate at which women were victimized in both the non-Bakken and Bakken regions largely outpaced male victimization. The rate of female victims in the Bakken rose from 118 per 10,000 females in 2006 to 140 in 2012, closing the gap on the non-Bakken rate, the study said.

Overall, the rate of serious crime — homicide, sexual assault, aggravated assault and robbery — climbed 38 percent in the Bakken, while it fell 4 percent in the non-Bakken region.

Taken separately, the rate of sexual assault and rape crimes stayed mostly steady in the Bakken, with a decline of 3 percent. The non-Bakken region saw a drop of 5 percent.

“Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes,” Richardson said, noting the data only includes reported crimes.

FBI data lags about two years, and RTI could only study statistics to a certain point, Richardson said. However, the institution is looking at researching more recent crime data from the Bakken, he said.

“What would the trends look like five years later?” he asked. “Crime was still increasing after 2012.”

'Massive overnight growth'

Phil Riely, mayor of Watford City, N.D., acknowledged the Bakken had serious crime, but said his city is a safe place to live. “We have gone above and beyond to ensure the safety of our community members,” he said.

The city went from four police officers serving about 1,400 residents in 2009 to 23 officers as of 2017 and about 6,500 residents.

“We had a massive overnight growth in our community,” Riely said. “Everybody always talks about your transient population. We had more campers than a sports show.”

Total crime appeared to peak in Watford City in 2015 before tapering off in recent years, according to reports from the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

Richardson said there are opportunities to look at how the Bakken population impacted crimes against society, including prostitution, as well as how crimes tested law enforcement capabilities.

“When you have a region whose infrastructure cannot support this mass and rapid population influx, it can create a number of social problems,” he said.