Shooting scene on Cook Avenue

Billings police, fire and ambulance personnel talk with residents after shots were fired at a party at 1615 Cook Avenue at 3:46 a.m. on Saturday, May 25. The Billings Police Department's data indicates that the number of incidents involving firearms has actually dropped in 2019 compared to previous years.

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Despite a spate of shootings in November, including one that injured an innocent bystander, police say Billings is on pace to see a drop in gun violence in 2019.

The Billings Police Department does not track shootings as a category. Instead, the best gauge is the department’s reports of assault with a firearm, which are logged separately for each victim, even in multi-victim assaults.

Through Nov. 26, Billings has seen 28 victims of assault with a firearm.

That figure had been steadily increasing since 2015: 20 that year, 30 in 2016, 37 in 2017, and 47 in 2018.

The data is no perfect indication of shootings, however. It includes firearms incidents in which only a threat — and no firearm discharge — takes place. In addition, fatal shootings are recorded as homicides, so they are not captured by the firearms assault numbers.

Lt. Brandon Wooley said it’s tough to guess at what’s driving an 11-month trend like the dip in firearms assaults. What’s more, the department doesn’t like to put too much stock in short-term trends because they can soon change.

The only lasting trend the department sees is a steady increase in violent crime since 2014. Murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults have risen each year, annual reports show. 

In November alone, the police responded to at least six shootings in Billings, including the Nov. 24 shooting at a Gas-N-Go on Jackson Street, in which a store clerk was shot. The shooting took place roughly two hours after shots were fired during a casino holdup in the Heights. 

That gas station incident stood out because the vast majority of shootings in Billings take place between acquaintances, said Lt. Brandon Wooley.

“Obviously yeah, I think all law enforcement is recognizing there’s something going on,” Wooley said, of the cluster of shootings in November. “That there’s a spike in a certain period of time.”

But periodic spikes are nothing new, Wooley said. Similar to an increase in suicide calls the department responds to around this time of year, shooting incidents are sometimes seen in clusters.

Wooley said the November shootings could not be easily explained by any one factor – for instance, by a bad batch of drugs hitting town, or an ongoing feud between groups of people.

"There really is no pattern," he said. 

Due to under-reporting, the firearms assault statistics don't likely reflect the true number of victims, Wooley said. The statistics only include cases in which police were able to verify a firearms assault took place, and to locate a victim. 

Some people choose not to cooperate with police, especially when the backdrop to the assault involves illegal activity.

“They’re probably not going to call the cops anyway when Drug Dealer A steals from Drug Dealer B,” Wooley said.

This article originally ran on billingsgazette.com.

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