Crime crackdown in Indian Country

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

  • During a traffic stop, Mike Shockley, an officer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, helps Dan Camiccia, a National Park Service officer, detain a suspect on the Wind River Indian Reservation near Fort Washakie, Wyoming.

    Robert Durell/WyoFile
  • Mike Shockley hands out stickers to children while on patrol on as part of an effort to develop better relations with Wind River Reservation residents.

    Robert Durell/WyoFile

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Only about 20 to 30 percent of enrolled students -- around 75 new officers each year -- typically graduate. This year, the academy is trying to improve that percentage by better preparing incoming students through careful assessment of their abilities and by providing more reading material before training starts. Class sizes will be cut in half, and the academy is offering more classes. It's also looking into partnering with tribal colleges and state and local agencies to offer basic training programs closer to more reservations. In order to encourage recruitment to remote reservations where economic opportunities for spouses are limited, the agency instituted hiring bonuses.

The BIA has hired 70 new officers since January and aims to hire another 20 this summer, all to take over when Operation Alliance ends. Once the kinks are worked out, officials hope to expand the program to four more reservations in 2012, but only if the next budget includes another $5 million to support the expansion.

Meanwhile, 60 officers at a time from across the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation are filling in at the first round of reservations. Each group works a shift of two to four weeks before rotating home.

For example, the National Park Service deployed 22 rangers for a month-long assignment across the four reservations earlier this spring. A second shift of 22 rangers followed. All are voluntary members of Special Events Tactical Teams that are used for unique law enforcement assignments.

"To be honest, it has been a hardship for the home agencies," which are often already short-staffed, says Greg Lawler, chief of operations and policy for law enforcement and security at the Department of the Interior. Some vacancies can be "backfilled" by paying another qualified worker overtime, but agencies aren't always able to find a replacement. The BIA covers all costs for deployments and backfills.

Most of the borrowed officers have been through the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and already work in the rural West. Their only additional training is a day-long cultural sensitivity orientation with local tribal elders and BIA officers. On the Wind River Reservation, they sniff burning sweetgrass and cedar to learn to distinguish it from illegal substances and are taught to show respect for the tokens many tribal members wear around their necks. They are cautioned against being too harsh with elders, many of whom take pride in their independence by driving themselves to the grocery store, for example, even if they swerve.

Despite their requests for help, Wind River residents weren't quite ready for an influx of mostly white officers from distant federal agencies. "Those officers were throwing people on the ground at gunpoint, searching vehicles, taking sacred objects from tribal elders, accusing them of having marijuana when it was only sage or sweet grass. These are injustices against the native Arapaho religion," Dean Wallowingbull, a reservation resident, wrote to HCN in an e-mail.

"Like anything else, we have some growing pains. There's mistakes made along the way -- some people were pulled over, and the police officers were overly aggressive," says Spoonhunter. But as the first round of officers rotated to a second batch, the tribe improved the orientation program. The new officers have been less aggressive, and reservation residents, too, have started to adjust. Now, a few months in, Spoonhunter says, "The elders and some of the residents have noticed that they're able to sleep at night knowing there's law officers around for safety. Youths that used to congregate, they no longer congregate until early hours of the morning. There's less vandalism and graffiti. So I think it's starting to make a difference."

For the first time, the Wind River department will have the luxury of assigning two officers to work full-time in schools. Other officers may conduct foot patrols in some areas, in hopes of developing better relations with residents.

On two shifts this spring, the changes were apparent. Shockley responded to a call for a drunk driver who had fled a traffic stop and taken refuge in a trailer home, only to find that five other officers had gotten there first. Later, he found time to drop by a children's basketball tournament in the town of Arapahoe and chat with an organizer. "This (community time) is completely foreign to us," he marveled.

Still, the unfamiliar officers have continued to foster some distrust. Spoonhunter says the reservation looks forward to the arrival of permanent Native American officers from the BIA Academy this fall.

After midnight on the second shift, Shockley came to the assistance of a newly arrived BLM officer, who had arrested a young woman for public intoxication. "You get a fucking rez cop over here," yelled the woman. "Don't you fucking touch me!"

She relaxed as soon as she saw Shockley. "Thank you for being here," she said as he gently steered her into the back of his vehicle.

This story was produced in collaboration with WyoFile's version, including additional photographs, can be found at

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