Jun 24, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff WriterThere's been more crime reported over the past two years on the Wind River Indian Reservation, but the U.S. Attorney for Wyoming says that's a sign of improvement after an influx of law enforcement officers.
"I thought it was a bit of a mistake to say if you're going to add police officers, you're going to reduce the crime rate," Wyoming's U.S. Attorney Christopher "Kip" Crofts testified during a hearing Tuesday in Ethete in front of members of the Wyoming Legislature.
When it comes to law enforcement efforts on the reservation for the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes, Crofts concluded that "it's better than it used to be."
Crofts and others addressed concerns raised following reports that Wyoming's reservation was the only one out of four to report a crime increase under a federal pilot program targeting criminal activity in tribal areas.
Despite the number of law enforcement officers increasing from around a half-dozen to more than 30 on the reservation starting in 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice noted a 7 percent increase in crime.
More cops, more reports
Wyoming resident Affie Ellis, who serves on the Indian Law and Order Commission, said the Wind River Indian Reservation "is a very special instance" with the increase.
"Wind River kind of stood out because of the net increase in crime," she told lawmakers.
Testimony Ellis heard during a listening session held by the commission recently in Fort Washakie indicated another reason for the increase.
"They all attest there was an increase in reporting," she said.
Members of the Legislature's Select Committee on Tribal Relations and the Joint Judiciary Committee heard testimony that concluded the added law enforcement benefited the reservation.
Wind River Police Department chief Will Mathews told lawmakers that law enforcement presence skyrocketed
under what became known as the "surge" with the Operation Alliance federal program.
"We were at six officers and jumped up to 30 overnight," Mathews said.
The increase in law enforcement has benefited the reservation community and the prevention of criminal activity, he said.
"Over time working with this ... we observed it go down and keeping the presence of being proactive is one of the big differences we could accomplish," Mathews said.
The initial influx of officers came with a host of problems from community members not used to being stopped for traffic violations.
"One of the oversights was the cultural aspect of things," Mathews said, noting officers brought in from other areas of the country questioning people for sage, sweetgrass and other tribal fixtures.
"We ran into a lot of issues with that ... a lot of kickback from the community for the rangers," he said, using the term applied to the imported law enforcement officers from the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service and other agencies.
Officers underwent cultural sensitivity training following their arrival that ultimately helped to resolve the issues, Mathews said.
"After we started doing the cultural part of it and they started understanding a little, things seemed to flow a little better around here," he said.
State Rep. Patrick Goggles, D-Ethete, a member of the tribal relations committee, said the extra police presence helped the reservation.
"As a person living here, I appreciated the law enforcement surge," he said.
"The problem we were addressing is the lack of officers to enforce the Shoshone and Arapaho Law and Order Code," Goggles said.
He had raised questions to himself about the lack of enforcement on state highways traversing the reservation before the surge. "It wasn't happening. There wasn't any enforcement," he said.
Goggles said he disagreed with an increase in crime on the reservation accompanying the law enforcement effort.
"The surge, I believe, had brought that to a level where crimes were being reported and called in," he said. On the reservation, "that crime rate had always been there to begin with."
FBI sees benefit
FBI special agent Paul Swenson, who has worked in the agency's Lander field office for 13 years, commended the operation for providing additional cops.
The program "was a tremendous benefit to law enforcement on the reservation," Swenson said.
"From an FBI standpoint, we are way down on the numbers of violent crime we are seeing coming across our desk."
An attempt to further law enforcement on the reservation by expanding tribal authority to enforce state laws failed during the last legislative session, but lawmakers discussed revitalizing the effort.
"One was we weren't very well informed about the training of your officers," state Rep. Kermit Brown, R-Laramie, judiciary committee co-chairman, told Mathews about challenges to the bill.
Although federal authorities receive training, the state does not recognize them as certified police officers, Mathews said.
"The officers themselves, a majority of them are not Wyoming POST-certified," he said, referring to the Peace Officers Standards and Training program for the state.
When asked about the difference between the two, Mathews replied, "The federal training in most cases exceeds the state training."
State Rep. Del McOmie, R-Lander, who is the tribal committee co-chairman, said the budget session prevented detailed discussion and debate on the bill.
It died "because there was no opportunity to do these kinds of things," McOmie said.
Fremont County Sheriff Skip Hornecker talked about situations involving his deputies responding to incidents within reservation jurisdiction and facing potential liability issues.
"It just seems ludicrous to us" that deputies doing their job would not have legal protection and "somehow be hanging out there," state Sen. Drew Perkins, judiciary committee co-chairman, told the sheriff. "We need to fix that."
Fremont County commissioner Keja Whiteman said she supports the "cross-deputization" idea for officers on and off the reservation.
"I think my goal in cross-deputization would not be to send BIA law enforcement off the reservation to fight crime," Whiteman said, adding the effort would improve enforcement efforts in the tribal areas.
Paying for the training necessary for federal officers raised questions. "If it was perceived that all the BIA and tribal officers needed to be POST-certified, have the county commissioners thought about that" in terms of providing funding? Brown asked.
"My first guess would be no," Whiteman said about the commission paying for the training.
Instead, she questioned Wyoming's failure to acknowledge federal officers. "I think my issue would be why doesn't POST recognize other law enforcement," she said.
Heavy case load
Lawmakers heard about other problems facing the criminal justice system on the reservation beyond the police arena from former full-time tribal prosecutor Carole Justice.
She told lawmakers the tribal office that has one full-time prosecutor handles more than 5,000 cases annually while enduring inadequate investigatory abilities.
"Number one, investigators for tribal crimes -- we don't have any," Justice said, identifying areas needing improvement. "I have no one to investigate tribal crime."
The office itself also lacks the necessary funding for handling its caseload, Justice said. "There needs to be a lot more money for tribal prosecution, but it's not your purview," she told the legislators.
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