This story contains both audio and video elements. The radio story (click orange button to listen) includes interviews with Nathina St. Pierre (with gun, above), the North Dakota attorney general, Stanley police chief and the Dunn County sheriff. The video story focuses on St. Pierre’s struggles with sexual harassment in Watford City, North Dakota.
When Nathina St. Pierre goes jogging in the oil patch, she never goes alone.
“I carry a .22 pistol,” she says. “I have an eight-inch blade, a taser and pepper spray. I don’t leave home without one of the few — if not all of them. Ever.”
That’s because when St. Pierre runs on the streets of Watford City, she receives lots of unwanted attention from men. She says they gawk. They whistle. They catcall. Sometimes, they even rev their engines.
“They’re like packs of wolves,” she says.
St. Pierre is 21 years old. She moved from Florida to North Dakota two years ago.
“It was flattering at first to have people hitting on me all the time,” she says. “It was almost like, they really thought I was pretty. After about three months of it and it was everywhere I went, the grocery store, you can go into the gas station, pumping gas, you could be walking. Every man — it didn’t matter how old he was, it didn’t matter — they’d hit on you. They’d say something. They’d hoot and holler out the window. It was everyday. Every time you turn around.”
She’s not alone. A Watford City mother of two young children recently complained about similar catcalls in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper.
St. Pierre, like an increasing number of oil patch residents, has state-approval to carry a handgun. Concealed weapon permits in the five biggest oil-producing counties jumped 57 percent last year. Data for the first two months of this year suggest another rise in concealed weapons permits in oil country in 2012.
So, the fear of crime is on the rise. But does the fear match the facts?
Says North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem: “Crime is up in the oil patch.” He says some areas, especially the major oil producing counties of Williams and McKenzie, have seen big increases in the number of rapes, aggravated assaults and motor vehicle theft.
But Stenehjem also says that the chance of being the victim of an aggravated assault — a felony that’s tripled statewide — is about the same in western North Dakota as it is elsewhere. Here’s Stenehjem at a recent press conference discussing crime in the state: “While it is certainly accurate that crime is up and up considerably in a worrisome way in some of those counties in the oil patch, the major reason that is happening is the population is up.”
A demographer working with Stenehjem estimated the population in western North Dakota’s oil counties and used that data to compare crime rates between the oil patch and the rest of the state. Based on those calculations, the attorney general says a person is less likely to be raped in the oil patch than elsewhere in the state. For aggravated assault, the chance of being a victim is about the same.
“The likelihood of being a victim of a crime out there isn’t really not that much greater than it is in any other part of the state,” Stenehjem says.
But the crime reports the attorney general is using are missing data.
Many law enforcement agencies in those 11 counties simply didn’t report crime data to the state. Dunn and Divide counties didn’t report data in 2010 or 2011. McKenzie County reported only partial data in 2010. In addition, at least four local police departments — Stanley, Tioga, Killdeer and Powers Lake — didn’t report crime details in one or both years.
The state doesn’t penalize local law enforcement agencies for not reporting data. However, if they don’t report, police and sheriff’s offices can’t apply for state grants.
In an interview with Prairie Public, Stenehjem says the missing data might affect his conclusions about crime in the west being no worse than elsewhere. “We can’t be sure when we don’t have some of the information,” he says. “We can only report the statistics that we have.”
I’m in a police cruiser with Stanley Police Chief Kris Halverson. He’s showing me the flashing light panels on the car’s visors. “If you push you ‘em down then that’s the red and blues and this one is the red and white,” he says. “That’s my lights for stopping them.”
Stanley, North Dakota is a fast-growing oil patch city that’s home to lots of new people, a growing suburban-style housing development and a big oil-to-rail transfer facility. Halverson hasn’t reported crime data to the state in recent years. One reason is lack of time. Despite Stanley’s booming growth, he’s been the only guy on the job for weeks at a time. Today, Halverson’s department totals two officers. Next month, it increases to four. Halverson did share several years worth of crime stats with me.
Here’s are the details:
Felonies, including rape and aggravated assaults aren’t happening in Stanley or haven’t been reported to police. About the worse that can be said is that there’s a big increase in drunk driving and simple assaults.
But drive a couple hours south and things aren’t so peaceful.
Dunn County, which is home to dozens of drilling rigs, also hasn’t reported crime data for two years. But in an interview with Prairie Public, Sheriff Don Rockvoy says it’s on the rise. “Our crimes now we’re seeing now are pretty good vandalism with oil field equipment, huge increase in domestic violence situations. We’re seeing lots of assaults, [aggravated] assaults,” Rockvoy says.
In other words, fights — usually between guys at closing time.
“Where we’re seeing those coming out of bars,” Rockvoy says. “Of course, with an [aggravated] assault you have to have a broken bone or weapon used. There are some pretty tough characters in the area. We are starting to see some pretty nasty fights.”
When Rockvoy was appointed sheriff in 2009, Dunn County employed just four officers. The influx of newcomers — accompanied by increased traffic and crime — prompted Dunn County to add seven more officers, a nearly tripling in staff. Crime here isn’t as bad as in bigger oil patch cities, but Rockvoy worries it might be.
“Williston is seeing it. Watford City is seeing it. Dickinson is seeing it. With the higher crimes and more of them,” he says. “Definitely, I’m not going to forget about it in Dunn County. I hate to say it. Will it happen? It’s probably a pretty good chance.”
— Todd Melby and Ben Garvin
Photo by Ben Garvin