Drug crimes, violent crimes drop for 2021 in South Dakota

State level data has limitations, but offers insight on long-term trends

By: - December 30, 2022 2:47 pm
An equal justice statue sits outside the doors of the Minnehaha County Courthouse in Sioux Falls. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

An equal justice statue sits outside the doors of the Minnehaha County Courthouse in Sioux Falls. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

Drug arrests have dropped 25% in South Dakota over the past five years.

That’s one of the major takeaways from “Crime In South Dakota 2021,” the annual report from the state Attorney General’s Office that aims to compile arrest reports from all state law enforcement agencies. The 2021 report includes data from 101 agencies, representing 91% of the state’s police departments, sheriff’s offices and other agencies.

The report shows a drop in arrests for murder, rape, burglary and an overall drop in arrests for major crimes of 5% compared to 2020, with slight increases in juvenile arrests, a 21% increase in minor crimes and a 12% increase in drunken driving arrests.

The report’s introductory notes say that technical issues delayed the report’s publication, and that a software error affected overall arrest numbers. Its conclusions, however, square with reports from some local agencies and nationwide figures that showed a spike in crime in 2020 and a drop the following year.

For some crimes, the boomerang effect of the first and second pandemic years put arrest numbers for 2021 more in line with figures from 2019. Kidnapping arrests went from 144 in 2019 to 168 in 2020, then back to 140 for 2021. Several other arrest figures dropped below pre-pandemic levels. Rape arrests fell to 448 from a 2020 high of 499. In 2019, South Dakota’s law enforcement agencies recorded 490 arrests for rape.

Division of Criminal Investigation Director Chad Mosteller said he couldn’t offer an explanation for the long-term reduction in drug arrests, especially considering the high-profile nature of the state’s drug problems. Just weeks ago, the state recorded its largest-ever seizure of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid stronger than comparable narcotics.

“It is a trend that is interesting, because we know we have drug problems in South Dakota. We’re making arrests on those every day,” Mosteller said.

Trend tracking is the report’s primary purpose, he said. Arrests rise or fall in a given year for a variety of reasons, like a global pandemic or changes to the definitions of certain crimes, such as when the South Dakota Legislature voted to classify choking incidents as aggravated assault in 2013. But Mosteller said trends over time help law enforcement decide where to focus their efforts and resources in the future.

“It’s multiple fronts, looking at this data and making decisions based on their needs and being proactive,” he said. 

The report has its limitations. Beyond the missing data from 9% of local agencies, it does not include arrests from tribal areas outside the state’s jurisdiction. 

Another thing the report can’t help citizens understand is what local trends might be present in a particular community. It also doesn’t include numbers for 2022, a year all but over when the report was released this week. Sioux Falls Police Chief Jon Thum told Pigeon 605 in September that crime trends in 2022 “picked up right where 2020 left off.”

The Sioux Falls Police Department’s own annual report doesn’t show a five-year decline in drug arrests, but it doesn’t show a long-term upward trend, either. Narcotics cases stood at 2,992 in 2017 in Sioux Falls. The high water mark was 2020, with 3,043 cases. In 2021, the number stood at 2,658.

What has jumped are figures for the amount of drugs involved in those cases. The SFPD seized nearly 130 pounds of methamphetamine in 2021. In 2017, the figure stood at just over 11 pounds.

Figures for fentanyl were even more stark. The SFPD made its first seizures of that drug in 2019, collecting about 48 grams. In 2021, officers seized 2,028 grams.

More troubling for Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Daniel Haggar, whose office prosecutes the lion’s share of Sioux Falls crimes, are arrests for violent crimes. Aggravated assault cases jumped from less than 400 in 2019 to more than 500 in the two years that followed, and his office continues to see more violent cases.

“We’re seeing a shift to more violent crime. Less crime without victims, more crimes with victims,” Haggar said.

Mosteller pledged to move through 2022 data and release “Crime in South Dakota 2022” much more quickly. Work to improve data collection and agency engagement for the next report, which the DCI director said will come in the first half of next year, has already begun.

“It’s about reporting this information and making sure that each one of these entities are reporting the data so we can have that complete picture,” Mosteller said. “When you’re dealing with incomplete data, it’s hard to make the best decisions.”

Crime In South Dakota 2021




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John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.