Being a police officer on a reservation is not like being a police officer in other places. For one thing, crime is 2.5 times higher than it is in other parts of the nation, with violent crimes reaching 20 times higher on some reservations, according to WyoFile. And then there’s the huge amount of space police officers are asked to cover, millions of acres in some cases. Until recently a single police officer could expect to pretty much work on his own, with little ability to call for backup when in need, because that backup could be over a half hour away.
Officials in charge of an Obama administration initiative—Operation Alliance, or more informally “the surge”—hope that the initiative will change those numbers and reduce crime on four reservations (Wind River in Wyoming, Mescalero Apache in New Mexico, Rocky Boy’s in Montana, and Standing Rock in North and South Dakota) by five percent in two years. Toward that end, the Wind River Reservation saw its police department increase to 30 officers from eight early this year.
“The Wind River reservation covers 2.2 million acres,” writes John Lancaster,
a breathtaking expanse of grassy plains and cottonwood-lined draws that rises toward the snowy peaks of the Wind River Mountains…. Until the recent police surge, [Mike] Shockley, the night patrolman, was one of only six patrol officers and two investigators who worked out of the tiny [Bureau of Indian Affairs] police station in Fort Washakie.
Troublemakers on the reservation have long been aware of their numerical advantage, which is one reason they often react to traffic stops by hitting the gas…. One young driver used his cell phone to record a video of Shockley chasing him, then posted the scene on YouTube with the title, ‘Keep Trying Shockley’ (the video has since been removed).
There is hope among some that the initiative, which currently staffs temporary officers who will be replaced once new BIA recruits complete training, is working. Shockley seems to be among that camp. After responding to a dispatcher’s alert about a drunk driver one night, he found five other officers already on the scene. “That’s awesome,” Shockley is quoted in the story as saying. “Never have I seen that before.”
There are tensions between the “loaner cops” and the local communities, though. One story that Lancaster tells is of a woman arrested for public intoxication:
‘You get a fucking rez cop over here,’ yelled the woman, dressed in white shorts and a blue sweatshirt. ‘Don’t you fucking touch me!’
She relaxed as soon as she saw Shockley coming her way. ‘I want to ride in Shockely’s car,’ she said.
With “just 3000 officers—fewer than in Washington, D.C.—[patrolling] 56 million acres of Indian country across the United States,” Jason Thompson, director of the BIA’s Office of Justice Services, thinks something needs to change: “Right now, we’re a very reactive agency because of the lack of resources we have…. This is a historical problem. We’re at a point right now where something has to be done.”
(Thanks, High Country News.)
Image by Robert Durell