Blackfeet vote to take back control of reservation law enforcement

December 5, 2009

Tribune Projects Editor

BROWNING — The Blackfeet Tribe is asking to take over its own law enforcement responsibilities again.

A resolution approved by the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council on Thursday put the Bureau of Indian Affairs on notice that the tribe intends to phase out the BIA police department, replacing it with its own tribal Department of Public Safety.

The BIA has operated a police department on the reservation for almost the past seven years, but tribal officials say the law enforcement effort has been deteriorating for years.

“They started out with a lot of ambition, which died out and they became lax,” said Rodney “Fish” Gervais, spokesman for the tribal Law and Order Committee. “We need a police department that will provide consistent law enforcement.”

In February 2003, Ed Naranjo headed up a surprise takeover of the Blackfeet tribe’s police department, where a special BIA report had exposed evidence of poorly trained law enforcement personnel, mismanaged budgets, bungled case reports and political interference from tribal council members.

A SWAT team armed with assault rifles drove onto the reservation in a column of federal vehicles one Saturday and confiscated officers’ guns, badges and uniforms, firing everyone from the police chief to the jail cook.

The BIA hired 32 uniformed officers — effectively doubling the reservation’s law enforcement — and ended a nearly eight-year effort by the Blackfeet Tribe to run its own police force under contract with the BIA.

“Our plan is to stay there long-term,” at least long enough to bring the police force up to par before handing it back to the tribe, Naranjo said at the time.

But for the past few years, there have been only five BIA officers to police the 1.5 million-acre Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Police Chief John Grinsell was not available for an interview last week in Browning, and regional supervisor Matthew Pryor in Billings did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.

The tribe responded two years ago by creating its own Department of Public Safety to supplement the BIA police department, but it has had a rocky start.

The tribe hired Lamar Associates of Washington, D.C., to devise an innovative community law enforcement plan. Steven Juneau, a vice president of the consulting firm and a former BIA official in Billings, was the point person for the tribe. Juneau did not respond to calls seeking comment on Friday.

Although the plan called for hiring six dispatchers and seven officers on a budget of a little more than $1 million a year, Juneau insisted on also hiring three crime analysts and five crime technicians, said acting DPS Director Henry Devereaux in an interview Thursday.

“Juneau was not following the contract or the MOU (memo of understanding with the tribe),” Devereaux said.

He also said that the BIA police department and the DPS force were short-handed and working their officers five 12-hour shifts a week.

“Some of them were bringing home extremely huge paychecks,” said Devereaux.

From May through September 2008, DPS officers claimed $71,196 in overtime, said Leatha Kipp, the department’s support specialist who handles the budget. But the BIA only paid the officers $16,020, she said, leaving the tribe to make up the difference.

The problem is that the new department had no director and BIA oversight was almost nonexistent, she said. It wasn’t until she attended a training session that she learned the contract had a limit on the amount of overtime the officers could work.

When Devereaux, a former Glacier County Sheriff’s deputy and Montana Highway Patrol sergeant, took the department over last February, it was almost broke, he said.

“First we cut our crime techs because their jobs were unnecessary,” said Devereaux. “Then we cut back on overtime, but we still were consistently in the red through August.”

Freda Pamburn, the department’s law enforcement administrative assistant, said the DPS started last year with 34 employees, but now has cut down to 18. That includes nine officers, six dispatchers, two administrators and the director.

Last August, the BIA demanded repayment for the salaries of the crime techs and analysts that had not been included in the original contract, but tribal officials said it wasn’t their fault.

“BIA had complete supervision over that department — they set it up without a director, so it all fell on the BIA — and they were lax in their oversight,” Gervais said.

As part of the federal Justice Department’s efforts to reduce lawlessness on Indian reservations by beefing up tribal police departments with stimulus funding, the DPS budget has been increased to $1.5 million this fiscal year, Gervais said.

“The BIA has informed us that they’re ready to relinquish their law enforcement responsibilities on the Blackfeet Reservation,” Devereaux said.

“They’re finally beginning to work toward that end,” Gervais said. “But it hasn’t been without a lot of resistance. They’ve been doing a lot of road blocking.”