Crime in boomtowns – and how to deal with it

By Dale Johnson Posted: November 8, 2017 6:00 a.m.

 Dr. Rick Ruddell, Law Foundation of Saskatchewan Chair in Police Studies, has written Oil, Gas, and Crime: The Dark Side of the Boomtown.
Dr. Rick Ruddell, Law Foundation of Saskatchewan Chair in Police Studies, has written Oil, Gas, and Crime: The Dark Side of the Boomtown. Photo: U of R Photography

There’s a new book that examines crime in boomtowns, Oil, Gas, and Crime: The Dark Side of the Boomtown, by Dr. Rick Ruddell. Ruddell is a professor in Justice Studies and the Law Foundation of Saskatchewan Chair in Police Studies. He has been conducting research on crime in boomtowns – and the responses of the justice system to the rapid population growth and industrialization associated with these booms – since 2007 and has written numerous articles on the subject. Ruddell says writing this book is consistent with the goals of the Law Foundation of Saskatchewan Chair position – with a focus on rural crime and responses to crime.

What types of crimes are more likely to increase in boomtowns and why?

All crimes increase – mostly because of the massive population growth of single young males who are earning large salaries. The most significant increases are in assaults, impaired driving, disorderly conduct (mischief), and other crimes related to alcohol and drug abuse. Prostitution offenses also increase, although few are ever charged with prostitution-related crimes. Really serious violent crimes, such as homicide, increase slightly – and some of these offenses are related to gangs/organized crime who compete for the drug and prostitution markets.

The book debunks the common media claim that all boomtowns represent the new “wild west” with mass increases in “murder and mayhem.”

Levels of crime are not consistent across boomtowns; some are relatively peaceful places, while others have very high levels of crime.

What other types of problems surface in boomtowns?

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A number of social problems emerge, including alcohol and drug abuse and an increase in antisocial behaviour. “Un-neighbourly” behaviour that doesn’t rise to the level of crime but is nonetheless disturbing to others – such as noisy parties, catcalls directed at women and drunken behavior/rowdiness.

There are increases in traffic-related crimes and the number of deaths on the roads have a dramatic increase, mostly because of the large number of large trucks in transit. In a fracking wellsite’s lifespan there are about 3,000 round trips to service the well, and most rural roads are not designed for this traffic.

Community residents almost always express concern about aggressive driving and drunk driving – combined with traffic congestion and increased traffic flow.

While we have a pretty good idea about crime on the streets, one of the issues raised in the book is that there is little attention given to corporate crimes (e.g., illegal dumping of toxic wastes or deaths/injuries related to non-compliance with worker safety regulations or simply taking unsafe shortcuts).

Who are most likely to be the perpetrators, and victims, of crimes in boomtowns?

Non-resident young single males are responsible for much of the crime increase – although long-term local residents are also responsible for some of these offenses; there were crimes before the boom started and many local residents don’t want to acknowledge that fact. Boomtowns draw a relatively large number of people with criminal records – including large increases in the number of registered sex offenders – and many people looking for a “fresh start.”

While the highest number of victims are also young men, incidents of domestic violence, stalking, and other abuses of women increases. Many women are staying in precarious living arrangements. They’re dependent on their partner’s housing because there is a lack of housing, and are socially isolated and have few resources since many are from out of town.

We’ve had recent examples of boomtowns nearby, in Estevan, Saskatchewan and Williston, North Dakota. Are these communities studied in your book?

The book focuses on the Bakken region – primarily in North Dakota, although also cites examples from the Marcelles Shale in New York/Pennsylvania and the Eagle Ford in Texas.  There are also many examples from Fort McMurray and a few examples from boomtowns in Australia.

Does the end of a boom also mean the end of criminal activity in the area?

Crime increases during the “bust” – although populations decrease, many of the people who are left have unresolved alcohol and drug problems. Often there is a spike in domestic or family violence as families are living on reduced salaries and are under more stress. There are also increases in property crimes such as thefts of oil and oilfield equipment, mostly from disgruntled ex-employees.

One of the key points in the book is that all booms end, and many communities are actually worse off after the boom unless they plan ahead.

What recommendations do you make to reduce crime in boomtowns?

At the end of the book I provide 15 suggestions for reducing the disorder and crime associated with the boom.  They range from local governments taking a proactive approach at the start of the boom to improve housing and the local government infrastructure – adding additional police officers as soon as possible in the boom, providing supports for victims of domestic violence. Above all – local governments are encouraged to plan for the bust as all booms end and the goal of a local government should be to reduce the negative impacts on their community.