Tribal officer recruits short on places to train tribal police

By Dirk Lammers
Sioux Falls, South Dakota (AP) July 2010

With more law enforcement officers needed on American Indian reservations, federal lawmakers and tribal leaders hope to create more opportunities close to home for people to train as tribal police.

About 150 Bureau of Indian Affairs recruits are trained each year at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, N.M., during three 16-week Indian Police Academy sessions, said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

But only half of the students complete the course work, Dorgan said, and some of the graduates take jobs in other areas of the federal government or in private security. As result, many reservations have officer shortages.

About 3,000 police officers now patrol 56 million acres of Indian Country, according to the U.S. Senate Committee of Indian Affairs. Some estimates say 1,900 more officers would be needed just to provide basic, adequate staffing.

Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said he’d like United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, N.D., to help train BIA officers. The college began adding classes in criminal justice and law enforcement in 2008 and signed a memorandum of understanding with the BIA.

Overall, the violent crime rate on reservations is 2.5 times the national average, but on some reservations, it’s as much as 20 times the national average, according to the committee.

On the 1,442-square-mile Rosebud Sioux Tribe reservation, for example, 19 patrol officers and five criminal investigators are doing a job that should be performed by a force of 80, Tribal Police Chief Grace Her Many Horses said.

Her Many Horses is an Indian Police Academy graduate, and she’d prefer her recruits go through the same training. But she understands the difficulty of being so far away from home and family for 16 weeks.

Another option, she said, is to send potential officers to the South Dakota Training Academy in Pierre, which trains state, local and tribal police, and supplement that training with a BIA criminal jurisdiction class. Local training slots, however, also fill up quickly.

“Either way we look, we’re backlogged,” she said.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said there’s a waiting list to get into Artesia and there should be another, closer option.

“There are, I’m sure, unique things with regard to preparing to do tribal police work in reservation communities,” he said, “but that’s also clearly something that we think could be done elsewhere.”

Her Many Horses said delays in completing background checks have contributed to the problem. She has four certified officers waiting to join the Rosebud force as soon as their background checks are done.

“It could take anywhere from between four to six months to get someone through a background, and I need people now,” she said.

Congress recently passed the Tribal Law and Order Act, which gives American Indian tribes more authority to combat crime on reservations. It’s headed to the desk of President Barack Obama, who has said he will sign it.

The measure provides for the appointment of special U.S. attorneys to ensure violent crimes on reservations are prosecuted, improves training for reservation police, expands the sentencing authority of tribal courts and improves the collection and reporting of Indian crime data.

It also requires that tribal and federal officers serving Indian Country be trained in interviewing victims of sexual assault and collecting evidence at crime scenes. Lack of evidence is among the reasons attorneys have cited in declining to prosecute cases.

The bill might also result in more potential recruits for the Bureau of Indian Affairs by raising the maximum hiring age from 37 to 47.

But Thune said getting officers to live on the reservations continues to be a problem, as little permanent housing isn’t available.

Her Many Horses said she just hired an officer from Eagle Butte but is struggling to find him a place to live.

“Tribal housing is pretty much taken up by tribal members,” she said.

On the 2.3 million-acre Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which straddles the South Dakota-North Dakota border, the BIA had only nine patrol officers in 2008. That meant at times, just one officer was on duty, patrolling property about the size of Connecticut – a situation that also has created safety concerns.

“When you have less than 3,000 police officers patrolling 56 million acres, they’re often patrolling alone, without backup, when responding to violent crimes,” Dorgan said.