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Indian Reservation Police Outgunned, Outmanned

WASHINGTON POST

The loneliest and scariest moment in Oliver Homer’s life came at one of the most beautiful places in the world--the floor of the Grand Canyon. He lay pinned to the ground by three angry and drunken Havasupai Indian youths he had just sprayed with Mace, and backup help--if he could even get it--was several hours away.

“I thought, ‘If I lose this fight, it’s the end for me,’ ” recalled Homer, a Navajo member of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ police force in this Haulapai Indian reservation town south of Grand Canyon National Park. “If I would have been hurt, no one could have helped me.”

As it happened, Homer was able to pull out his gun and get away from the youths.

But Homer’s predicament that June night is emblematic of the factors that contribute to what many officials say is a growing law enforcement crisis in Indian communities nationwide. The 500 Havasupai who live on the canyon floor are so remote they are accessible only by a three-hour horseback ride--and Homer was the only police officer on duty in the midst of increasingly hostile and violent youth gangs on the reservation.

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Although violent crime has been declining nationally for several years, it has been on the rise in Indian Country. The homicide rate on reservations, for example, rose 87% between 1992 and 1996; in the same period, it dropped 22% nationwide, according to a federal report. Many of the violent crimes involve the use of drugs or alcohol.

At the same time, police service on Indian lands has been steadily shrinking under relentless budget-cutting in Congress. While the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report statistics show 2.9 police officers per 1,000 citizens in non-Indian communities with populations less than 10,000, the ratio in Indian Country is 1.3 officers per 1,000 citizens.

There are 1,600 BIA policemen and uniformed tribal officers patrolling 56 million acres of Indian lands in the lower 48 states, protecting more than 1.4 million residents on about 300 reservations. By contrast, 3,600 police officers serve 540,000 residents in the District of Columbia.

Tribal leaders and senior BIA officials say the situation will worsen if the BIA’s $82-million law enforcement budget is not substantially increased.

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Kevin Gover, assistant secretary for Indian affairs, told Congress, “Just about any person who lives on the many Indian reservations will verify that safety for their families, including their own homes, is a daily worry.”

Following a task force report last year--which concluded that reservation Indians “do not receive even the minimum level of law-enforcement services taken for granted in non-Indian communities"--the Interior and Justice departments collaborated on a plan for a new organizational structure for Indian law enforcement that is intended to streamline budgeting and identify staffing needs.

“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” said Theodore R. Quasula, chief of the BIA’s law enforcement division. “More people are going to be killed--good policemen and innocent civilians--if something isn’t done.”

In the past two years, two police officers have been killed in separate incidents on the Navajo reservation, including one who was beaten, strangled and left to die in a remote stretch of desert where he was overpowered by two burglary suspects he confronted miles from the nearest backup.

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In addition, BIA Police Capt. Jack Spencer died in a crash Sept. 5, after he fell asleep at the wheel of his cruiser. He had spent 29 straight hours on duty and was driving 275 miles to assist another officer in an armed standoff with a criminal in western Nevada. In a prophetic memorandum to regional BIA officials in Phoenix two months before the accident, one of Spencer’s colleagues warned that the captain was so physically and emotionally fatigued by overwork that he was becoming a danger to himself and others.

Law enforcement officials say the problem is that Indian reservations are so vast--the Navajo Nation southwest of here is 26,500 square miles--and tribal police forces are so understaffed that officers often must respond to potentially dangerous situations hundreds of miles away, alone in their cruisers without any prospect of backup help if they get into trouble.

In addition, departments often are so underfunded that patrol cars are most likely to be 10 years old, with obsolete radios and more miles on the odometer than the 60,000 federal regulations say should be the maximum. Moreover, most Indian police are armed with old six-shot revolvers instead of the semiautomatic weapons that most non-Indian police officers have. Most officers do not have protective vests or other standard police equipment, BIA officials say.

“They’re outmanned and outgunned, and some of them feel that because the government has turned their back on Indian law enforcement, more officers are going to get killed,” said Wayne C. Nordwall, director of the BIA’s area office in Phoenix. “In all candor, they’re probably right.”

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Brent LaRocque, supervising criminal investigator for the BIA’s law enforcement division headquarters in Albuquerque, said detention facilities on many reservations are so inadequate that officers sometimes leave intoxicated prisoners in the back seat of patrol cars for eight hours or more to sober up because there is no jail space. He said the police station on the Pascua Yaqui reservation near Tucson is in a house, and the jail is a small steel cage in a bedroom.

Indian police officers also are the lowest paid of all federal police personnel, with annual base salaries of about $18,000. Consequently, the burnout rate is high, with average turnover at 50%, and on some reservations as high as 100%, a year, BIA officials said.

“Everybody knows what the situation is, but when it’s a case of Indians against Indians, nobody cares,” said Robert R. McNichols, superintendent of the BIA’s district office in nearby Valentine, which is responsible for five reservations in this part of northwest Arizona. “The sad thing about it is that the tribes accept it because they’ve given up.”

As he drove his aging squad car through the gently rolling scrubland, Troy Poitra, a Chippewa from North Dakota who has been a BIA police officer for nearly 10 years, recalled one gang member telling him recently, “I know you are going to be alone Monday, and I’ve got a little toy for taking care of you.” The “toy,” Poitra said with certainty, was a gun.

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“There are a lot of resisters, a lot of fighters out there,” Poitra said. “They’ll surround you, saying, ‘Hey, don’t be picking on him [a suspect],’ and suddenly you know you are outnumbered. They know they have the upper hand on the police all the time.”


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