In the past year, the number of police officers on the Crow Reservation has doubled and the level of violence has decreased.
That’s a good start, said Police Chief Tony Larvie, talking about his first year as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Police Department in Crow Agency.
“I feel like the Police Department has come a long ways,” he said Tuesday. “I feel like we’ve got a lot further to go, but we’ve definitely made progress.”
Larvie began his new job in December 2011, at the end of a year that had seen a series of violent crimes on the southeastern Montana reservation. A triple homicide in October 2011 and a fatal stabbing in November, both in Lodge Grass, were followed by a shooting death in Pryor in early December.
The trial for Sheldon Bernard Chase, the man accused of killing three people, has been delayed so it can be decided whether Chase is competent to stand trial. Little information has been released about the other two cases.
“The bulk of our problem stemmed from being short-handed,” Larvie said. “I think when I stepped through the door we had nine police officers.”
Larvie worked for the BIA Office of Justice Services for 11 years before arriving in Crow Agency. The federal agency provides law enforcement for many tribes in Indian Country.
He was a police patrolman on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming for eight years, and he spent the next three on drug investigations with the District V Office of Justice Services in Billings. He is not a member of the Crow Tribe.
"I actually would say it's easier for me" coming in as an outsider, Larvie said. "I'm a new face. I started with a clean slate."
When Larvie assumed leadership of the Crow department, he met with tribal officials, school leaders and others in the community to hear their concerns. What he heard was that reservation towns didn’t have an adequate police presence, response times weren’t very good "and frankly we weren't doing an adequate job."
The only solution, Larvie said, was to fill the vacancies that existed and seek funding for more officers. The BIA, in partnership with the Crow Tribe, did just that.
The department now has 10 BIA patrol officers, six tribal police officers, one supervisory police officer and a second one just hired. In addition, the department has two investigators and a third was to start Wednesday.
“That does a number of things,” Larvie said. “It allows us to provide better coverage. It allows us to have a better presence in all the communities.”
When Larvie started, the department had enough officers to have two on duty per shift. That number has increased to three on weekdays and five or six on weekends.
Arrests for disorderly conduct, public nuisance and drinking-related offenses increased in 2012, while the number of violent crimes dropped, he said.
“I think there’s a correlation between the two,” Larvie said. “If we’re out there doing our job, more effectively enforcing the common offenses, it has a direct effect on the violent crimes or serious crimes.”
In 2011, the police department recorded 50 serious incidents involving homicide, manslaughter, aggravated assault, arson and sexual offenses. That number dropped to 42 in 2012, Larvie said.
"That's almost a 20 percent decrease," he said.
In the past, police patrols in Lodge Grass, the only incorporated town on the reservation, were sporadic. Larvie said the town about 20 miles south of Crow Agency now has an officer on site the bulk of the time.
Mayor Henry Speelman of Lodge Grass said that with regular patrols in the evenings and at night, he thinks the department is getting a tighter grip on violence.
"I believe he's doing a good job," Speelman said of Larvie.
The Rev. Jim Antoine, pastor of Our Lady of Loretto Catholic Parish, agreed that there has been more of a police presence than in the past.
"There's probably some drop in violence simply because police are more available," he said.
Alcoholism and drug abuse still affect the community, Antoine said, and can lead to lesser kinds of violence like fights and domestic abuse. When a police patrol is away from Lodge Grass, he said, problems still crop up.
"By the time they get here from Crow Agency, the perpetrators may have done their damage," Antoine said.
Larvie said the added manpower will allow the department to boost drug enforcement. The tribe recently hired a drug investigator who will work with one of the BIA investigators to tackle the problem of drugs on the reservation.
The department also has re-established its highway safety program. The department had three officers funded through the BIA’s Indian Highway Safety Program in 2011 dedicated to reducing traffic accidents and fatalities, but lost that funding that same year.
It once again has one officer funded through the program and Larvie hopes to gain more.
“Throughout 2012 we had a high number of traffic fatalities and it’s something we need to take a stronger stance on,” Larvie said.
The majority of traffic fatalities are alcohol-related, he said.
One of the officers hired by the tribe is helping to implement a reservation-wide sex offender registry. As part of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, the officer will develop and maintain a violent sexual offenders’ website and record management system.
“He’s also responsible for making sure the offenders are in compliance, checking in as needed,” Larvie said.
The registry is part of a federal mandate under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. Tribes can defer the responsibility to the state, Larvie said, but the Crow Tribe decided to take on the job.
The department also has hired a school resource officer who mainly is stationed at Lodge Grass High School. One of the priorities of the tribe is to reduce the high truancy rate and boost graduation numbers.
“Conducting that type of law enforcement is very time-consuming and we could frankly use a school resource officer at each of the schools,” Larvie said. “Between us and the schools and the tribe, we’re going to have to find avenues to fund more school resource officer positions.”
John Small, superintendent of Lodge Grass Public Schools, agreed with Larvie that having a full-time school resource officer at the high school would be preferable. Towns are spread out on the large reservation, and that reduces the time spent at any one school, Small said.
When the officer is able to be at Lodge Grass High, he provides "a positive presence because there's been some situations where he's be able to help us resolve some issues," Small said.
Larvie recognizes that there’s much more to be done. But he is pleased with what has been accomplished in his first year on the job.
When he arrived, he got complaints each day about officer conduct and response times. Now the number of complaining phone calls has decreased to a trickle.
“I truly believe that the officers are doing a better job,” he said. “We’re also having additional staffing, which is allowing us to provide better service."