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Know the West

Crime crackdown in Indian Country

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



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.

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.com. WyoFile's version, including additional photographs, can be found at http://bit.ly/cHduIF