Crime crackdown in Indian Country

A federal effort to improve public safety on reservations gets a rocky start

 

FORT WASHAKIE, WYOMING

Mike Shockley is used to working alone. Until recently, the Bureau of Indian Affairs police officer was one of just two assigned to night patrols in a tiny police department of six officers and two investigators based on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The 2.2-million-acre reservation, a breathtaking expanse of prairie rising to central Wyoming's snowy Wind River Mountains, is home to 7,500 members of the Northern Arapaho and the Eastern Shoshone tribes. Crime here ranges from alcohol and methamphetamine abuse to gang activity and domestic violence.

Shockley, who is part Shawnee and Delaware, joined the BIA in 2008, taking advantage of a hiring preference for Native Americans. He typically worked 12-hour shifts -- 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. -- five days a week, often at a relentless pace. Reservation troublemakers have long been aware of their numerical advantage, and they often react to traffic stops by hitting the gas. "I was in two pursuits in seven years at the sheriff's office," Shockley says of a stint with the department in Laramie. "I've been in 10 here. They just all run." With such a large territory to cover, Shockley has driven 400 miles in a single shift. He carries bear spray for run-ins with hostile crowds. And backup? Forget about it.

But all that's changed. One mid-May night, the 37-year-old was one of four officers who pulled up at a house in separate vehicles for a report of underage drinking. Two sprinted after a 16-year-old girl who had bolted from the house, tackled her, then led her away in handcuffs.

It seemed like overkill. But that, for better or worse, is the point.

Since early May, Wind River's police department has nearly quadrupled in size to 30 officers. The increase is part of President Obama's High-Priority Performance Goal for Indian Country, which aims to reduce crime on the Wind River and three other reservations -- Mescalero Apache in New Mexico, Rocky Boy's in Montana, and Standing Rock in North and South Dakota -- by 5 percent over the next two years. This summer, the BIA began stocking those reservation police departments with temporary law enforcement officers drawn from five other federal agencies through a program dubbed Operation Alliance. That effort has gotten off to a rocky start because of cultural differences. But by November, all temporary officers will be permanently replaced by brand-new recruits currently training at the BIA's Indian Police Academy in Artesia, N.M.

Officials hope the effort will serve as a model for the entire reservation system, which has crime rates 2.5 times higher than the national average, with violent crime rates 20 times higher on some reservations, according to BIA data. Just 3,000 officers -- fewer than in Washington, D.C. -- patrol 56 million acres of Indian Country.

Stronger law enforcement has been a long time coming, explains Harvey Spoonhunter, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Tribal Council, noting that for years his constituents have asked the BIA for more police officers. It's a longstanding problem, agrees Jason Thompson, acting deputy director of the BIA's Office of Justice Services: "Something has to be done."

Obama launched his initiative late in 2009 at a meeting with his Cabinet members and around 600 leaders from nearly every federally recognized tribe in the country. This year, the president allocated $5 million to the High-Priority Performance Goal to pay for community assessments and Operation Alliance. In addition, the BIA's Office of Justice Services received a funding increase of around $50 million in 2010, some of which goes to permanent increases in police staffing at the four reservations.

The BIA operates 40 law enforcement departments that serve about 155 federally recognized tribes, including the Wind River's Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho. About 72 percent of tribes run their own law enforcement departments with varying levels of oversight, funding and technical support from the BIA. A few rely on state law enforcement.

The BIA has said it needs another 1,900 officers to bring law enforcement ratios on the reservations up to the national average. Filling those vacancies is up to the agency's Indian Police Academy, where officers go through a 16-week training course tailored to the unique demands of reservation policing, such as how to handle dangerous situations alone in a remote area, perhaps with no radio or cell phone reception.