[ By Kellie Lunney | Photography by Bradly J. Boner ]
“Not sure if you heard ... We had an officer-involved shooting last night on the reservation.”
Charles Addington from the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent that email message July 30 to a Washington reporter in town to write a story on recent federal efforts to reduce violent crime on Indian reservations. “A deputy pursued a car from off the reservation onto the reservation, and the car stopped in the roadway and the passenger got out and pointed a gun at the officers, and the suspect was shot and killed,” the note read. “The deceased was not a tribal member.”
The deceased was blond, baby-faced Justin Phillip Steele, 26, of nearby Pavillion. He was, as Addington put it, “known to law enforcement” before his ill-advised confrontation with the cops on a long stretch of road near the small town of Ethete. On July 29, the night he was killed, the Gloucester, Massachusetts, native allegedly stole several guns from someplace off the reservation, jumped into a car driven onto the reservation and shot out the vehicle’s rear window during a police chase. That prompted his companions to hit the brakes and flee on foot—where to is anyone’s guess, since there’s not much around but sage brush and wildflowers. That’s when Steele, who was white, pulled a gun and was shot by a BIA officer, who is Native American.
At the scene were local and federal police, who often work closely in the jurisdictional law enforcement and government maze that makes up this part of west-central Wyoming. The next day, officials from the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office arrived to begin their investigation because the incident involved a Native American, a nonnative and, in this case, a BIA officer. Violence, crime and the ubiquitous federal government. To many, it looks like just another day on the rez.
But few things are so straightforward here.
Wind River is the only reservation in the country with two separate tribes, the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone, sharing power equally, each with their own customs, tribal government and political agendas. But the two tribes’ fractious past, as well as tensions with the surrounding towns and the state government, gives this sparsely populated place of open spaces an edginess, a chronic low-grade rumbling below the surface of things. Then there’s the anguished relationship with the federal government, a relationship marred by a long history of distrust, abuse and neglect.
“You haven’t seen politics until you’ve seen out there,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Kerry Jacobson of Wind River. Jacobson, who lives in Fremont County just outside the reservation and has been with the U.S. attorney’s office in Wyoming since 2002, was at the scene of the shooting on July 30.
Wind River is one of the country’s largest Indian reservations and one of four original pilot sites that were part of a successful federal initiative to stem violent crime in Indian Country. The 2.2 million-acre reservation, roughly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island together, is known for a few things: Sacagawea’s grave, talented young basketball players and grisly violence. A 13-year-old girl was killed in 2010 when her drunken brother choked her and threw her against a weight bench after he discovered her and a friend having sex; he and the friend left her body under a tree. Earlier this year, a woman killed her newborn baby and threw him in a ditch. Most of the crimes involve alcohol and drugs. Drunk driving is a factor in many car fatalities, and statistically, those deaths are classified as homicides. Jacobson has a map of the reservation an FBI agent gave her when she started the job. Federal law enforcement nicknamed one village on the Fort Washakie side of the reservation the “Stabbin’ Cabins.”
But this is also a community of people determined to give their children better opportunities, who struggle to battle insidious alcohol and drug abuse, and live to celebrate their history and culture.
“We want to know that our children are going to be OK, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren are all going to be OK once [we] leave, once [we’re] gone from here,” says Sara Robinson, deputy county attorney for Fremont County, and the former Eastern Shoshone tribal liaison with the state of Wyoming. Robinson still lives on the reservation she was raised on. “And so it’s up to us now to make sure that happens, that we put them in the best place that we can.”
There are youth leadership programs, basketball camps for kids and annual powwows here that revel in tradition and empower tribal members. It’s not a constant thrum of murder and mayhem. The reservation is a complicated and curious mix of brutality and beauty, distrust and openness, dejection and hope.
In other words, it’s America.
The rate of violent crime on Indian reservations in the United States is more than double the national average. The number of violent crimes per 100,000 people on reservations nationwide was 442 in 2013, higher than the administration’s reduction target of 412, according to the Interior Department’s annual performance plan and report released in March. The reasons given vary, but are consistent: poverty, unemployment, rampant alcohol and drug abuse among Native Americans, geographic isolation, lack of tribal autonomy in prosecuting nonnative repeat offenders who commit crimes on reservations. But the most obvious problem in much of Indian Country is too few cops responsible for covering too much land. It is also, perhaps, the easiest to fix: Put more boots on the ground.
That’s what the Obama administration did between fiscal 2010 and 2012 at four of the country’s most dangerous Indian reservations, in what became known among locals as “the surge.” Administration officials don’t care much for that term, taken from military lingo used to describe the influx of American service members in Iraq during that war, because it implies the help isn’t there to stay. But the more colorful moniker also is more accurate than the initiative’s official Washington name, HPPG, or high-priority performance goal. Each federal agency had a list of goals in 2009. One of Interior’s priorities was to reduce violent crime on four Indian reservations in 24 months by 5 percent—what the Office of Management and Budget would call a “stretch goal.” Of course, Washington was reacting to pressure from tribal leaders to improve public safety on reservations. “The tribal leadership has been beating this drum for years,” says Addington, an Oklahoma native, enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, and the BIA officer who was the Sherpa of the surge. “That’s how it all kind of came about.”
With some ups and downs, BIA actually managed to decrease violent crime by an average of 35 percent across the four reservations during the life of the initiative through painstaking manual data collection, analysis of when and where certain crime occurred, an influx of law enforcement officers on the reservations, and modern community policing methods. Now crime is nowhere near as prevalent as it was on any of the four reservations when the surge began. Violent crime at Wind River was down 60 percent in fiscal 2013, compared with before the surge. The other pilot reservations—Standing Rock in North and South Dakota, Rocky Boy in Montana, and Mescalero in New Mexico—have seen similar results. The administration tried to replicate the surge at two other reservations—Rosebud Sioux in South Dakota and San Carlos Apache in Arizona—with less successful results.
Addington, who goes by Charlie, was nominated for a 2013 Service to America Medal for his work on the HPPG, the federal government’s Oscars funded by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. At the time of the HPPG, he was BIA’s associate director of field operations and moved to Washington from Montana to oversee the initiative. He left Washington in October 2013, and moved to Oklahoma, where his farm and family are, to be deputy associate director for the agency’s drug enforcement division. Addington is a valuable asset to the agency: He brings more than a decade of on-the-ground experience as a BIA officer and has the bureaucratic insight that comes with having spent four years in Washington leading a successful federal program. During the surge, he helped explain the real world to Washington insiders, and they listened. At the same time, he learned how things work—and don’t—at the top of the federal government.
“This has never been done in Indian Country before,” Darren Cruzan, director of BIA’s Office of Justice Services, told the Partnership for Public Service when Addington was nominated. “Lots of people were involved, but Charlie was the mastermind.” As Addington says, “I do things differently.”
There’s no denying, statistically or anecdotally, that the surge was a success. In an area as vast as Wind River (it can take roughly 45 minutes by car to get from one part of the reservation to another) having more cops to pull people over, talk to residents, and generally make their presence known, deterred the kind of bad behavior that spawns killing.
“We did not have a drunk-driving fatality the whole time they were here,” says Sunny Goggles, of the increase of boots on the ground during the surge. Goggles directs the White Buffalo Recovery Center for people struggling with addiction. She grew up on the reservation on 17 Mile Road, an infamous stretch of highway considered one of the deadliest thoroughfares in the state before it was widened. “I grew up with accidents at my parents’ house. That’s one of the reasons I live in town,” she says.
But crime is creeping back up at Wind River, according to the numbers and the residents, partly because there simply aren’t as many law enforcement personnel working the beat anymore. When the surge started, there were six officers patrolling the reservation, says William Mathews, chief of police at Wind River, where the BIA oversees law enforcement, though agency data shows there were 11 BIA officers at Wind River in 2009. Addington attributes that discrepancy to people being on leave or in the hiring pipeline. “We worked a lot of one-man shifts,” says Mathews. “It was what it was, and we dealt with it the best we could.”
At the height of the surge, there were about 26 officers patrolling the reservation of roughly 11,000 residents; 22 of those were BIA officers, while others were employed by the tribe. Mathews says he has the funding for 34 officers, but he only has about half that number partly because of the slow federal hiring process, but also because for outsiders, Wind River can be a hard place to live and work. Turnover has been an issue.
Mathews says he sees the number of DUIs going back up, though that’s not just a reservation problem; Wyoming has struggled with drunk driving as well. As for the number of homicides on the books in recent years, Mathews says they’re not all necessarily murders, but car fatalities.
BIA officials, who had to figure out a baseline for crime stats when the surge started, came up with an average of 94 violent crimes at Wind River during fiscal 2007 through 2009. That spiked to 144 violent crimes—a 53 percent increase—in 2010, mostly because the robust police presence encouraged more people to report crime. By 2013, however, the number of incidents had fallen dramatically to 38. As of June 2014, however, violent crime had inched back up: There were 47 cases on the books with three months left in the fiscal year.
Addington says crime tends to spike when there’s a cash infusion from the federal government. BIA statistics bear that out: In May, there were 18 violent crimes at Wind River; by contrast, there was one violent crime in April and three in June. At the time of the crime spike, members of both tribes were receiving thousands of dollars as part of a $157 million lawsuit against the federal government from the 1970s. Each Northern Arapaho member received $6,300, and Eastern Shoshone tribal members each received $15,000 in settlement checks. When you have a lot of people carrying around bags of cash, that typically creates a target-rich environment for criminals. “That’s the kind of stuff that makes your numbers fluctuate, and that’s the same thing they’ve seen at Standing Rock,” Addington says. Standing Rock reservation, which President Obama visited this summer, had 95 more cases of violent crime in fiscal 2013 than in fiscal 2012, in part because of federal payouts. Crime has fallen again this year at that reservation, says Addington.
“You can put as many patrol officers as you want down here, and you’re going to reduce [crime], but there’s some crimes that even if you’re sitting in front of the house, you’re not going to prevent,” Addington says. “Same way anywhere else. You can have a police officer sitting on every block, and there’s still going to be activity.”
Addington has a point. Hiring more cops helps, but there are other, systemic problems that 100 officers on the ground at once can’t solve. “We tend to protect the perpetrators versus our victims a lot more, and that’s something our community has to work on,” says Goggles.
Still, fewer cops around emboldens troublemakers. “A lot of your punks and regulars knew that they would be caught in a moment doing whatever, so they laid low,” says Wayland Large, Shoshone and Arapaho assistant tribal prosecutor, and the reservation’s HPPG meetings coordinator. “But now, all of those regulars are starting to come back . . . You know, it’s just slithered its way in.” Large works in Fort Washakie on the Eastern Shoshone side of the reservation in a cramped three-room “shit hole,” as he calls it, with a sign out front that says “Beware of the Attack Snake.” Next door is a 19th-century house that contains boxes of court paperwork stacked haphazardly, and visible through the windows. The tribal courts received some money through HPPG because of an increased caseload, though the bulk of funding went to hiring more BIA cops—a criticism that has cropped up among other groups on the reservation with few resources to combat substance abuse and provide other critical social services that help keep vulnerable people afloat.
“I think they did a very smart job of ‘How do you focus?’ because you really need to pick goals and frame them in bite-size chunks that are ambitious,” says Shelley Metzenbaum, of Interior’s approach to infusing law enforcement with funds for the two-year HPPG. Metzenbaum, president of the Volcker Alliance, was associate director for performance and personnel management at OMB during the surge. “Especially in government, you cannot do everything at once. You have to set priorities.”
[ William Mathews, BIA police chief ]
william mathews has the money to hire 34 law enforcement officers at Wind River Indian reservation in Wyoming. He just doesn’t have the bodies.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs police chief has struggled to recruit and retain cops who will stay on the job more than a few years, or in some cases, days. The infusion of police during the surge, many of whom the Interior Department detailed to Wind River and other reservations to kick-start the initiative, has waned. Mathews and others blame the slow pace of federal hiring as well as the arduous job. Wind River is a beautiful place, but the police work and the geography can be unforgiving.
“We’ve probably cycled through, just off the top of my head, a couple dozen guys,” says Mathews, who at the end of July had about 18 officers on staff. “And the time it takes you to invest in them, it’s a lot of time, money and everything.” Mathews estimated it takes a year and a half for his recruits to hit the ground running—from the time they apply, to hiring, background checks, training, and finally, arriving on the job.
The slow pace of federal hiring accounts for some of the backlog. “BIA [human resources] is where most of the problem is,” says Charlie Addington, BIA’s deputy associate director for the drug enforcement division and architect of the surge, of the time it takes to bring BIA cops on board. According to the Office of Personnel Management, OPM vetted BIA-related law enforcement candidates in an average of 66 days in fiscal 2013, less than the 77-day governmentwide average for such background checks.
“OPM works closely with agencies to provide support and guidance as needed for agencies that are experiencing challenges on their hiring processes,” says an agency spokeswoman. “Obviously, there are a number of factors that contribute to how long it takes to hire someone into federal service. In terms of how long it takes, each individual agency is responsible for knowing and addressing their hiring needs.”
Training cops for a job on a rural, isolated Indian reservation with high rates of domestic violence and alcohol-related assaults, also takes time, Mathews says. And some candidates simply can’t afford to wait, or they show up and decide Wind River isn’t what they signed up for. “You are seeing guys coming in with this attitude of, ‘Well, I just want to check it out, see if I like it,” Mathews says. “Well, this isn’t one of those jobs you are just going to check out and see if you like it . . . I think they get out here and realize, ‘Hey, you are putting your life on the line every day that you’re out here.’”
Other federal law enforcement agencies also poach from the BIA, intentionally or not. Mathews says that officers at the start of the surge were receiving between $6,000 to $12,000 in signing bonuses for a three-year commitment; many of them left after their three years were up. “We get these guys cycled through and trained, and basically we’ve trained them for other agencies,” Mathews says. There’s also a housing shortage in the area, although the government has built a compound for Wind River BIA officers and their families.
Then there’s the toll the land takes. Kerry Jacobson, an assistant U.S. attorney in Wyoming, says it can be tough for outsiders and their families to acclimate to the region. “The winters are cold, they are long, we don’t have a mall,” says Jacobson, who works in nearby Lander—population 7,000. “You have to drive 30 minutes from here to even get to a Wal-Mart.” Of the officers, she says: “They just get back-to-back calls, work long shifts, and it just runs them ragged quickly.”
Mathews, though, has confidence in his current team. He says the Wind River force will keep “keeping on” despite their limited resources. “We definitely have some good officers here right now. I think we’ve got our core group, the ones who plan on riding it out and staying here.”
Knock and Talk
You can’t break the back of crime without getting people to talk. And you can’t persuade residents to talk unless they trust you. The federal government has an uphill battle in that regard pretty much everywhere in the country, but nowhere is it more painfully obvious than on Indian reservations.
“Indian tribes everywhere have been somewhat browbeaten by the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” says Gary Collins, the Northern Arapaho tribal liaison with the state of Wyoming. “They’ve been very paternalistic, and they’ve been very biased.” Collins says there were abuses of power by the cops when the surge started. “People being pulled over with sweetgrass on their dash, which is part of our culture and tradition, and they thought it could have been marijuana . . . They pulled them out of cars, pushed them onto the ground, handcuffed them, you know, the crazy things you see on TV,” says Collins. “People were pissed.”
Because of the slow pace of federal hiring, Interior detailed several law enforcement officers from the department’s other agencies, including the National Park Service and the Forest Service, at the beginning of the initiative. But many officers were unfamiliar with tribal customs and culture on the individual reservations and hewed too closely to the letter of the law. Pulling someone over for a cracked windshield makes sense in Washington, D.C., but on a poor, rural Indian reservation where, as Collins put it, “the best thing you can do is get a car to run,” it doesn’t always make sense, especially if it’s “grandma and her two nephews going to town to get some groceries” as opposed to a carload of drug runners. Northern Arapaho tribal business council members also recounted stories of being pulled over by overzealous cops who accused them of driving drunk.
“The community policing side of it is the biggest thing, you know,” says Addington. “Here you’ve to get out and have a relationship with the community.”
In law enforcement, it’s known as “knock and talk.”
And that’s what BIA tried to do, and continues to try to do, despite fear, distrust and a lack of resources. After the surge’s initial public relations disaster, law enforcement officers detailed to Wind River received training on tribal law as well as the reservation’s history and culture. Community relations improved after the training, but as Northern Arapaho Business Councilman Dean Goggles (Sunny’s uncle) says, “You don’t learn about the culture here in one week.”
It can be tough to do that and develop a rapport with residents at the same time, when you’re working 12-hour shifts in an isolated rural area. “They are getting tired,” says Mathews of his staff, which includes about 18 employees (including three female officers), and a few who are still in the training pipeline. “This is a busy agency; these guys aren’t sitting around idle all the time.” He tries to keep four officers on duty at all times.
Mathews says they’ve held basketball events for the community in the past, and had a junior police officer program designed to get elementary-school kids interested in (and comfortable with) law enforcement. “It’s fun, it’s a relief for us, it’s a change of pace,” says the soft-spoken Mathews, who is a member of the Pawnee tribe from Oklahoma but has lived on Wind River his entire adult life. The past year, however, “has probably been the toughest trying to get the community policing taken care of” because of the lack of staff and time, he says.
Sunny Goggles says there should be more opportunities for tribal members to interact with the police in positive, nonadversarial settings. “There needs to be a big push as far as humanizing our officers,” she says. “It’s hard to work someplace where nobody wants you here, and as long as the community sees them as the enemy, they are always going to have a hard time.” Goggles says that attitude even extends to BIA officers who are tribal members. “They are community members, tribal members, but once they put their uniforms on, they’re not looked at that way. Every day they go to work, they kind of get disowned by their families, and so there is some trauma involved with that too.”
Goggles says even her 4-year-old daughter, whose father is a police officer, is afraid to talk to him when he’s wearing his uniform.
“I ask her if she’s afraid of cops,” says the University of North Dakota graduate, of her toddler. “And she says, ‘Yes, because they take you to jail.’”
Locally Grown, Locally Driven
The surge not only succeeded in bringing violent crime down at Wind River, but it also managed to get people—tribes, law enforcement and Washington—talking to one another. It wasn’t always pretty, but people expended the effort because the stakes were so high.
But as Goggles and others so often mentioned, there’s a familiar disconnect they’re feeling with other stakeholders now that the surge is officially over and the administration has shifted priorities. The administration continues to focus on making Indian reservations safer, but the emphasis now is on another
aspect of the problem—reducing recidivism rates among offenders. It’s a laudable goal; some would argue that’s what the federal government should be doing, funneling reinforcements into different pockets of need at different times to combat a broad societal disease with multiple symptoms like crime. But there’s a risk that the surge success could evaporate. Addington says they’re no longer having weekly check-in conference calls with the police on site. It’s a small thing, but it could portend a backslide, if the feds aren’t careful.
And already, people on the reservation are viewing it as a short-term salve. “I like a lot of things that came with the surge, as far as acknowledgement of some of the issues here,” says Sunny Goggles. “But then there was a lot of, ‘Oh, we’ll just bring in these officers and fix it all, and then we’ll leave.”
Affie Ellis, a lawyer who runs her own public affairs firm in Cheyenne and has worked in Washington, served on the now-defunct Indian Law and Order Commission. The panel, required by the 2010 Tribal Law and Order Act, studied public safety on the country’s Indian reservations from 2010 to 2013.
Ellis praised the HPPG and the administration’s track record on Native American issues; nevertheless she is skeptical about the longevity of the program. “Our finding is no, we don’t think it can be sustained, and not necessarily all tribes want HPPG or something similar on their reservations,” she says.
Of the 325 federally recognized Indian reservations across the country, there are only 23 “direct services programs” in which BIA provides uniformed police and investigative capabilities to tribes that do not operate their own law enforcement programs. BIA put out a handbook of best practices from HPPG, and Addington says he’s heard from other tribes that are applying them to their own reservations. “It depends on what region you’re in, some of the things that will work well in one location may not in another location,” he says, with characteristic equanimity.
Ellis agrees that not one size fits all. “I think one of the most frustrating things that people ask of me is, ‘Well, what’s the solution?’” says Ellis. “And if you look at 566 federally recognized tribes, can you honestly say with a straight face there is one solution? Some tribes have been very successful in reducing crimes on the reservations; tribes that have access to financial resources are better able to do that than those that don’t. The solutions need to be locally grown and locally driven.”
Kellie Lunney covers federal pay and benefits issues, the budget process and financial management. After starting her career in journalism at Government Executive in 2000, she returned in 2008 after four years at sister publication National Journal writing profiles of influential Washingtonians. In 2006, she received a fellowship at the Ohio State University through the Kiplinger Public Affairs in Journalism program, where she worked on a project that looked at rebuilding affordable housing in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She has appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, NPR and Feature Story News, where she participated in a weekly radio roundtable on the 2008 presidential campaign. In the late 1990s, she worked at the Housing and Urban Development Department as a career employee. She is a graduate of Colgate University.