Creating a Sustainable Law Enforcement Department in Indian Country:  A Police Chief’s Perspective

image of Hopeland Reservation Police BadgeLocated in northern California, the Hopland Reservation Police Department has developed as one of the leading police agencies in Indian Country in the state. The Department is now known for our strong partnerships with allied agencies, our progressiveness in law enforcement services, and a committed team focused on developing successful community oriented policing programs. The Department is also now a recognized host for law enforcement training; we have attracted the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) and the FBI-Law Enforcement Executive Development Association’s training programs to the region. All members of the Hopland Reservation Police Department hold Special Law Enforcement Commissions issued by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Like many new departments in their infancy, the Hopland Reservation Police Department has had challenges in branding itself and coordinating with fellow agencies, as well as connecting with the community at large. Developing a modern, progressive, community oriented police department in California’s PL-280 state has always been a challenge. Up until recently, we have not had access to basic law enforcement resources, which has been a set back to modern police development, thus limiting the ability of our officers to appropriately serve and protect the community. Despite the support of the U.S. Attorney’s Office  and the passage of recent federal mandates in the Tribal Law and Order Act, we still continue to struggle with California State agencies for access to the same systems and resources as our local and state law enforcement counterparts. These challenges increase the police officer’s exposure to danger in the field and decrease the effectiveness of public safety services to the community—all during a time when the percentage of officers killed in the line of duty has doubled.

Stepping into the position as the Chief of Police was a great opportunity that did come with a host of challenges. After successfully developing a strategic plan, conducting several internal audits, and meeting with the public through a series of open “Town Hall” style events, I recognized the immediate need to re-brand the department and its image. This enabled the reservation residents to understand that their police department is genuinely community-oriented, not simply reactive to criminal activities. In addition to these external changes, internally our department recognized the need to develop and mentor personnel and enhance the department’s services through the procurement of equipment and modern investigative systems.

Chief Brett K. Rhodes playing cardWe began by implementing the department’s strategic action plan, which consisted of both external and internal changes. Externally, we started working on the public perception and building the public trust. We were able to utilize existing COPS grant funds and general funds to purchase new vehicles and develop new logos for the police department. We re-painted the police department and gave it a modern, fresh look. We also produced the department’s first ever series of police baseball trading cards for the community’s youth to become more familiar with and relate to their reservation’s public safety officers. We developed “Community Information” boards as yet another avenue to be more transparent about police programs and activities. We continued to be interactive with our community by attending several community events, listening to community members, and promoting the new changes to the department. These immediate visual changes and new outreach practices gave the community the confidence that their police department really was committed to enhancing their quality of life.

In addition to the series of external changes, we began internally making enhancements. We developed the police department’s first community oriented-based “mission statement,” a crucial element for driving our team down the road to success by providing critically needed direction for the team. Enrolling in the International Chief’s of Police Association’s New Chief Mentoring Program was a significant influence on me and solidified my perspective on the ongoing need to train and develop our team. This prompted the development of a “succession plan” that strongly emphasized cross-training and mentoring of personnel. We also heavily invested COPS training funds towards the development of personnel, both at the administrative leadership level and at the patrol operations level, to ensure continued success.

While it is known that the tribal police department can make a series of very effective changes, both external and internal, the department is limited in its capabilities to serve and protect the tribal community unless it is provided with modern day equipment and training.

In 2009, the U.S. Attorney’s Office recognized the need to provide law enforcement departments working in Indian Country with the same access to investigative information as their local and state counterparts. In partnership with the COPS Office, funds were provided to develop the NCIC/JUST Program, which provides our agency with access to the federal criminal database. Additionally, in 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics began a program focused on gathering Indian Country Crime Data—mainly Uniform Crime Reporting data. With the implementation of these data reporting systems, we anticipate that this data will confirm the present and continuing need to focus law enforcement funding and resources in Indian Country. The COPS Office and other associated funding programs could also utilize this data to better customize direct funding grants to Indian Country to support policing programs.

With the recent passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act mandating the federal government take active steps to improve law enforcement services in Indian Country, all of the public safety issues that have been ever present and neglected in Indian Country have been exposed. These issues, compounded by the current limitations of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services on funding of law enforcement agencies in California’s PL-280, have forced the Tribes to rely on grant funding to develop and sustain their law enforcement programs.

In an attempt to partner with state agencies, we are striving to work in partnership with all of the public safety agencies—in order to reach the public safety goals of all communities. Building a modern police agency within Indian Country in California is a challenge, but it doesn’t have to be. With the development of agencies such as the Hopland Reservation Police Department, we demonstrate a model of leadership, ability, training, and standards, with the goal of having the support of the state and access to standardized law enforcement systems and resources in the State of California. The Hopland Reservation Police Department will continue to take positive steps forward as an example of professional law enforcement development, partnerships, and community oriented policing in Indian Country within the State of California.

-Brett K. Rhodes
Chief of Police
Hopland Reservation Police Department


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