BISMARCK — North Dakota saw 26 criminal homicides in 2019 — the most the state has seen in more than four decades, according to data released Tuesday, June 23, by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

The grim milestone for North Dakota was previously 22 homicides, which it reached in both 1993 and 2015.

The North Dakota Attorney General's Office released additional crime data that shows the number of drug arrests, aggravated assaults and DUI arrests, among other offenses decreased from 2018 to 2019.

Though the number of homicides increased in 2019, Stenehjem said it's important to remember that they are relatively low compared to the rest of the country because of North Dakota's population, which the U.S. Census Bureau estimates is about 762,000.

Criminal homicides are defined by the U.S. Department of Justice Uniform Crime Reporting program as the willful (non-negligent) killing of one person by another, including cases of murder and non-negligent manslaughter.

"Looking at all of this and the increase in population, North Dakota will continue its position as one of the safest states in the United States," Stenehjem said Tuesday at a press conference. "I'm very proud of all the work that our law enforcement does in the system, making that happen."

Ten of the 26 homicide victims died as a result of domestic violence, two of whom were infants, according to the data.

The Attorney General's Office has reports for homicide and crime data dating back to 1978.

Stenehjem said almost all people who commit a homicide in North Dakota are apprehended, compared to the rest of the country, where about 65% of homicides result in arrests.

Aside from homicides, one of the more notable statistics was a 8.2% decrease in drug arrests between 2018 and 2019. This was the first time the number of yearly arrests has decreased in almost 10 years. Marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin were the top three types of drugs seized.

Much of the meth in North Dakota is from Mexico, Stenehjem said, and is distributed through Chicago and Milwaukee, among other places in the Midwest.

"We see the criminal gangs that are bringing meth into North Dakota in larger amounts and in greater purity," he said. "And that is something that is very concerning and certainly concerning for law enforcement, because now they are dealing with organized cartels."

The number of aggravated assaults in the state has plateaued since 2015, with about 1,200 assaults reported last year. Stenehjem said many of the crimes, including aggravated assaults, burglaries and car thefts, can be partly attributed to "the drug problem."

"The better we do at getting a handle on the drug problem, the better we will see we're doing with all of the other offenses as well," he said.

Since 2013, the number of DUI arrests has continued to decrease, with more than 4,800 people arrested in 2019 — a 6.2% drop from 2018.

Stenehjem attributes this decrease to North Dakota's 24/7 Sobriety Program, a mandatory program for second and subsequent DUI offenders that requires the offender to abstain from alcohol use and submit to regular alcohol testing at their expense.

He also said general awareness about the dangers of driving while under the influence has contributed to the state's decrease in arrests.

"I think society has started to recognize, more than ever before, that driving under the influence is a serious offense, and is not regarded as something that is a joke or to be taken lightly anymore," Stenejem said. "It's a risk to society that is simply too great."

North Dakota saw 83 reports of arson in 2019 — a 118% increase from the previous year's 38 reports. In 2010, there were 10 arrests made for arson. Stenehjem said he did not know what was behind the increase in arson reports.

More than $38 million worth of property was stolen in 2019, of which 33% law enforcement was able to recover.

The numbers released Tuesday were strictly from 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. Stenehjem said he has heard from law enforcement anecdotally that reports of crime in 2020 have been down due to the pandemic.

Readers can reach reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.