BIA officers calm unruly Browning

2003-04-13T23:00:00Z BIA officers calm unruly Browning The Billings Gazette
April 13, 2003 11:00 pm

Associated Press

BROWNING (AP) - When she sleeps now, both eyes are closed. Two BB guns and a broken hammer are still by her bed, but Illena Marceau doesn't reach for them in the night. The noises don't draw her to the window anymore, and the darkness outside no longer holds fear.

Life on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation feels safer for the 72-year-old ever since the Bureau of Indian Affairs began policing the area. The tribe's own police department, the BIA said, had simply ceased to enforce the law.

In one case, an allegation of sexual abuse wasn't investigated because "the mother didn't believe her boyfriend would do something like that to her child," a BIA report quoted a tribal police investigator as saying.

An inmate allowed to leave jail for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting instead went to his girlfriend's house and raped and assaulted her, the BIA said. An escaped inmate stabbed a man to death.

"There were things that were going on that shouldn't be going on," said Ed Naranjo, BIA special agent in charge of a six-state region that includes Montana. "A lot of it was that the police are untrained. Police were abusing their power, being heavy-handed."

Mismanagement, incompetence, dysfunction. The BIA had seen it before, only not as bad. Across the country, only a handful of the 177 Indian law enforcement programs that the BIA either operates or contracts to tribes face such serious problems.

Marceau often heard teens carousing outside her home and feared that they would break in. She said she knew the police wouldn't do anything, so she slept with her guns and hammer.

"I get up in the dark. I look around, see if anybody's outside," she said.

For 27 years, Tribal Police Lt. Richard Rutherford patrolled the streets of this depressed town in northern Montana.

Jobs are few - the unemployment rate is 23 percent - and poverty is a way of life for 34 percent of the population. Children play in the snow, and a few people always loiter outside Ick's bar and liquor store.

But the Blackfeet are proud of their heritage and community.

Feared both by white settlers and other tribes, the Blackfeet were perhaps the fiercest Indian warriors of the 19th century. "Lords of the Plains," they were called.

Meriwether Lewis took a side excursion during the return portion of his expedition in 1806, hoping for peaceful contact with the Blackfeet. It went badly; two warriors were killed in the only bloody conflict of the transcontinental trip.

But by the 1880s, the Blackfeet had been devastated by smallpox, and they were starving; the buffalo were gone.

Over the years, the government reduced their domain from about three-fourths of Montana to a reservation almost contained by a single county. Today, there are about 50,000 Blackfeet in the United States and Canada; about 8,500 Blackfeet live here on the reservation.

Most, like Rutherford, have been here all their lives and will never leave. Besides, Rutherford said, where would he go? Huge extended families live in Browning and in the surrounding reservation towns in the shadow of the Rocky Mountain Front near Glacier National Park. It is the heart of their ancestral home.

Rutherford, 46, knew his department had problems. But he also believed no one would listen to his complaints. The reason: Carl Old Person, police chief at the time, was the nephew of the tribe's chief, Earl Old Person.

His own efforts to change things came to nothing, Rutherford said. "One man can't make a change."

Rutherford disciplined sergeants for missing reports and skipping court appointments. And he believes that is why he was transferred from Browning - the largest town on the reservation with about 1,000 people - to the village of Heart Butte last year.

Carl Old Person denies retribution was behind Rutherford's reassignment.

Tribal Chief Earl Old Person said complaints about his nephew and the department were discussed at council meetings, but nothing was ever done, something he blames on the frequent turnover of council members and a lack of funding.

"It's true a lot of times council never really addressed those things," he acknowledged.

Community members complained to the BIA about incompetent officers, the hiring of known drug users and drinking on the job.

"It's very unsettling to have to fight your own people to get them to hear you," said Gloria McLean, 78, one of those who complained.

"Fear dominates a lot of our people," she said, working her fingers across a rainbow-colored quilt she was making at her apartment in the senior living complex that her daughter moved her to because of concerns about her safety. McLean's car windows and a front window of the house where she used to live were smashed five years ago. She reported it to police, but said they took no interest.

"If you're going to complain and nobody responds, then what's the use of calling?" Naranjo said. "Nobody comes."

In a September 2000 review, the BIA found many problems with the tribal police - lack of proper training, a filthy jail where some inmates had access to kitchen knives, nepotism, and tribal council politics interfering with department management - and told the department to shape up.

A May 2001 followup report found only cosmetic fixes, and the BIA said it would take over. The tribe's appeal gave the Blackfeet 15 more months to improve with the help of three BIA special agents. But Naranjo said police never showed much interest.

Even Troy Wilson, who in August 2002 became the department's fourth chief that year, said, "It was pretty much a mess."

He took over only a month after an inmate trusty walked away, went to his girlfriend's house and stabbed a man to death. A few months later, an inmate in jail for domestic abuse, allowed to leave to attend an AA meeting, instead went to his girlfriend's home and raped and assaulted her.

Finally, in February, a 13-year-old girl was raped. A hospital doctor asked police to send an investigator. Three hours later, no one had shown up.

The BIA had had enough.

"They were putting the community in jeopardy," Naranjo said.

On Feb. 15, BIA agents rushed into the police department with assault rifles. They ordered officers to turn in their guns and vehicles.

Rutherford and 12 other officers were out of jobs.

Similar problems have come up occasionally in other tribes. But Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, and Robert Ecoffey, director of BIA law enforcement services, discount the notion that Indian police departments are especially prone to problems.

"It's just that when they happen," Ecoffey said, "the media tends to pick up on the negative things that happen in Indian country."

Inside the P&M convenience store, the usual crowd of men have pulled up their bar stools around an oval table in the back by the fountain drinks and deli sandwiches. They call themselves the Knights of the Round Table and joke that they solve the world's problems here.

"We had tribal council interfering with law enforcement. It was bad," said Victor Connelly as he munched popcorn.

"I'm glad they showed up," his coffee buddy, Wayne Hall, 43, said of the BIA. "The chances of justice being done was nil."

The BIA brought in about 40 officers, from various reservations. They work here in 30-day stints. Naranjo said it will be several months before a permanent staff is hired; some former officers could be hired back.

While most of the community cheers the BIA, Wilson and Rutherford aren't sure the takeover will make much difference. They say the department needs more money and officers. The BIA is working with the same $1.8 million budget and about the same number of officers. More officers will be hired soon, Naranjo said.

Fixing the police department is different from changing the tribal council - what many residents feel is the root of the problem.

"There seems to be a great struggle to be the head honcho," McLean said. "We don't care who the head honcho is. We want them to do their job."

On a bitter cold night in Browning, BIA officer Jeff Chumley from the Hoh River Agency in Washington headed out for his evening shift in his sport utility vehicle, marked with the BIA seal. He made the usual rounds - by the bars, through each residential area and by the jail.

It was mostly quiet: a man was arrested for causing a disturbance, a car flipped over off a slick road.

"There's a lot of potential here," Chumley said over the chatter of the dispatcher's voice. "It wants to be a good community. I think they just allowed some bad people to overrun it."

Thirty miles away in Cut Bank, Rutherford watched a high school basketball game this night, still unemployed.

And across town, inside her purple house in a row of Easter egg-colored homes, Illena Marceau climbed into bed next to her blind husband, her BB guns and hammer. She pulled the covers up snug.

She didn't get up to look out the windows.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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