Just about every week, Jose Figueroa said he hears from someone interested in becoming a police officer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Figueroa is the BIA’s chief of police on the Crow Reservation.
The trouble is that it takes the federal BIA a year to clear a new hire for duty, he said Monday in Crow Agency.
That impedes his ability to staff his small department, compounding the challenge of patrolling a sparsely populated reservation that is the size of Connecticut.
Figueroa spoke during a meeting of the Crow Legislature's judicial committee. Judicial Committee Chair Sen. Paul Hill called the meeting following concerns over law enforcement's response to the attack in April of a Crow woman, who was set on fire and left to die. Two suspects were charged last week in connection to that crime. Staff from the offices of U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Ryan Zinke also attended the meeting.
Figueroa offered an overview of the problems facing his department, including long response times to calls coming from Pryor and Wyola. He said his department currently employs seven officers. In addition, three other tribal officers from the Department of Crowland Security patrol the reservation.
"Ten people taking care of a reservation that is the same size of Connecticut," Figueroa said. "We’re working 14-hour days, five to six days a week."
He added that six officers left the Crow BIA police department in September 2013 and those positions still are not filled.
The number patrolling the reservation should be closer to 26 or 28. That would double the budget of his BIA police force, costing about $4 million, Figueroa estimated.
Henry Rides Horse, cabinet head for the Department of Crowland Security, said the Crow officials need to take control of their own police force and not leave it up to the BIA. The Crow lands need to be protected and the people living there are the ones to do it, he said, but the funding isn't being allocated.
With more funding, Rides Horse said he could have additional officers patrolling in 30 days.
"To me, if you graduate from a law enforcement academy, you have the right to go out and patrol," Rides Horse said. He said his daughter will graduate from a police academy Friday, but will be subjected to the long wait.
"We need to get something done, bottom line. Help me,” he said. “I can move forward; I can move forward today if I’m told."
Figueroa was director of public safety for the Fort Peck Indian reservation before coming to Crow. He said it would help to cross-deputize police officers. After Fort Peck cross-deputized their officers, the community got safer, he said.
The cross deputization agreements between Fort Peck, Wolf Point, Poplar, Roosevelt County and the Montana Highway Patrol, allowed officers from local and state agencies to appoint certain officers to work on and off the reservation. In addition, it also gave tribal law enforcement the ability to act as a police officer off the reservation.
In Fort Peck, police who patrolled from agencies other than tribal law enforcement, were approved by the tribe and attended cultural sensitivity classes, he said.
After the informal Monday meeting in Crow, tribal Sen. Shawn Real Bird submitted a resolution to the July Crow legislature addressing public safety challenges. Real Bird reminded the federal government of its duty to provide adequate law enforcement to the Crow reservation. He called for more funding to build a tribal jail, create better rehabilitation services and increase the number of police on the reservation.
Real Bird also said it was time for a database to be created allowing tribal members to know what crimes are left unsolved on the reservation. He said gathering data will be important when justifying the reservation's need for more police officers.
Juvenile Probation Officer Elishah Reevis Sr. said without more police and more displays of adequate rule of law, the reservation would face a problem with vigilante justice.
Most members of the Crow legislature was not present at Monday's meeting, making it an informal gathering without a quorum. This caused Figureroa and Rides Horse to remark on whether or not the tribe was serious about making public safety a priority.
"We keep talking about it year after year after year," Rides Horse said. "Talk is cheap, people, lets step to the plate and start doing something."
Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator Laura Rides Horse said she was disappointed by how few legislators had come to discuss the issues with public safety on the reservation. She said she favored cross deputization if it meant more officers patrolling and shorter police response times.
“I don’t see the color of the uniform, I just see, help,” Laura Rides Horse said.
State Senator Sharon Stewart-Peregoy stated her continued support to call a U.S. Congressional hearing into the number of unsolved crimes on the Crow Indian Reservation. The Crow legislation will meet again in July to gather the legislature together and make an action plan.