Policing with some reservations

Allegations of police brutality. Shrinking budgets. A shortage of personnel exacerbated by low salaries. Jurisdictional disputes. Rising violent crime, including an increasing number of incidents involving youth gangs.

While this litany of ills could well describe the problems facing many of the nation’s police agencies, in this case they are the bane of law enforcement agencies on Indian lands.

In a series of articles this year, Law Enforcement News took an in-depth look at some of the dilemmas facing police in Indian Country. And, whether one considered the agencies under the purview of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs or the increasing number that are under tribal control, the primary concern identified by officials inadequate funding.

“If we’re going to get anywhere, it’s got to be in the area of trying to prevent some of this crime,” said Ted Quasula, director of BIA’s Division of Law Enforcement, which is headquartered in Albuquerque, N.M. “We simply don’t have enough cops in Indian Country to provide coverage around the clock like anywhere else in America.”

The situation is complicated by the massive size of the reservations Indian Country police must patrol, as well as by crime spilling over from fast-growing urban centers like Phoenix, Ariz. But perhaps even more so, the complex jurisdictional arrangement  the result of treaties dating back more than a hundred years as well as more recent Federal laws  adds to their dilemma.

“You can have state jurisdiction, Federal jurisdiction and tribal jurisdiction; in fact, on any one particular case, you can have all three,” said Quasula. “The race of the people involved, the location of the crime and the degree of the crime  all come into play when you’re trying to determine what charges to file against whom and where.”

The situation appeared to ease somewhat in the fall, when President Clinton’s budget for fiscal year 1997 called for an increase from $68 million to $84 million in the “tribal priority allocations” from which law enforcement funding is drawn. But the dire state of affairs has prompted more than 100 tribes to set up their own police agencies under the Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1994. Under the act, tribes develop a compact of self-governance with the Federal Government under which they can plan, consolidate and administer programs and services usually administered by the BIA, including law enforcement.

About 60 percent of Indian Country’s police programs are now being run by the tribes themselves, and a BIA survey counted about 1,100 tribal police officers three years ago. That number has certainly increased in recent years since tribes are eligible for supplemental police hiring grants from the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. The emergence of profitable casino gambling and other gaming operations on Indian reservations has increasingly provided tribes with the means to support their own police forces.

Accusations of police brutality and the use of excessive force against suspects allegedly committed by BIA officers have also contributed to the growing movement by tribes to assume control over police services. Critics of BIA-administered police agencies say there is little in the way of checks and balances to prevent such misconduct.

An even more far-reaching proposal to transform the way policing is carried out on Indian reservations was endorsed in October by the International Associations of Chiefs of Police. At the group’s annual conference in Phoenix, members voted to support a proposal by the Navajo Nation, the largest Indian reservation in the United States, to create a Federal Indian police agency under the Justice Department. The Navajos say they want more jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit crimes on reservations.


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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 31, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]