The e-newsletter of the COPS Office | Volume 1 | Issue 4 | April 2008

Helping Tribal Law Enforcement Implement Community Policing

Since 1999, the COPS Office has provided more than $314 million in assistance to law enforcement agencies in Indian country. Nearly $238 million of this amount was awarded through the Tribal Resources Grant Program (TRGP) to improve the law enforcement infrastructure by providing critical resources, training, technical assistance, and other support necessary to implement effective community policing strategies.

The Fiscal Year 2008 Omnibus appropriations bill for the Department of Justice includes more than $15 million for continued COPS Office funding through the TRGP. The funding will enable Indian country law enforcement agencies to acquire basic police equipment—including patrol vehicles—along with law enforcement technology and training, to address and prevent or reduce crime and crime-related activities that occur on tribal lands. Many tribal law enforcement agencies face a range of unique obstacles that often challenge their ability to promote and sustain community policing effectively. One of the primary goals of the COPS Office’s Strategic Plan in Fiscal Year 2008 is to increase the capacity of law enforcement agencies to implement community policing strategies nationwide, including those in Indian country.

Many tribal law enforcement agencies are seriously understaffed; moreover, it is not uncommon for some agencies to employ both tribal and nontribal sworn officers because of the difficulty of recruiting qualified candidates from tribal populations. Turnover is often high, and sworn staffing levels are further exacerbated by efforts to recruit and hire replacement officers in a timely manner. High turnover results in the need to constantly train new recruits, making it difficult to cultivate a community policing experience.

The best efforts for maintaining staffing levels in tribal law enforcement agencies are significantly undermined when vast geographical areas comparable to a state or county must be patrolled by a small number of officers. In 1999, for example, the Navajo Nation Department of Public Safety had only 321 full-time sworn officers covering roughly 22,000 square miles in three states and serving an estimated population of 169,617 tribal members. In contrast, the Reno (Nevada) Police Department had 320 full-time sworn officers serving 180,462 residents in a jurisdiction comprising only 57.5 square miles.

Similarly, some tribal lands belonging to the same tribe are separated by many miles of nontribal lands and pose additional obstacles for developing effective community policing strategies. The Tohono O’Odham Nation’s territory, for example, consists of about 4,400 square miles, encompassing 2.8 million square acres of remote desert and mountains in south central Arizona, yet has only 76 full-time sworn officers. A patrol officer may have to drive 1 to 2 hours to answer a call for service at one of several remote Tohono O’Odham tribal reservations because of the distance or lack of road infrastructure.

The Tohono O’Odham Nation shares a 75-mile international border with Mexico and because of the remoteness of the vast desert area, it is commonplace for the police to seize thousands of pounds of illegal drugs smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico each year, along with hundreds of high-powered automatic and semi-automatic firearms. Sadly, the Tohono O’Odham Nation Police Department also recovers between 50 and 100 or more bodies of illegal immigrants who die of exposure in their attempt to cross the desert into the U.S. from Mexico.

Such fragmented tribal lands can also weaken the effectiveness of community policing. The Mojave Indian Reservation, for example, is located in three states, with most of the main portion of the reservation in Arizona. It is divided into 1-mile-square parcels adjoining similarly sized parcels of nontribal lands. Consequently, each parcel not only poses a problem for tribal law enforcement, but also for the state and local law enforcement agencies that have to patrol the areas and provide unified community policing to their nontribal communities. For the time being, many of these mile-square parcels are agricultural, yet once developed with businesses or housing, it will become increasingly difficult to implement cohesive community policing strategies across such fragmented areas.

Other challenges facing tribal law enforcement agencies during the next several years will include not only the hiring of more officers, but also securing funding to equip and train these officers, funding for improving the communications infrastructure to enhance officer and citizen safety in remote locations, and increasing mutual cooperation with nontribal law enforcement agencies. The COPS Office wants to ensure that both discretionary funding and TRGP grant programs not only improve safety in Indian country, but promote viable strategies among state, local, and tribal law enforcement to become more effective in working together to prevent crime, reduce crime, and enhance the quality of life for Indian country residents and the surrounding nontribal communities.

The COPS Office will continue to seek new and innovative strategies that strengthen coordination and cooperation among federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies, improve joint training needs, and enhance the standards of professionalism of tribal law enforcement. This will ensure that community policing strategies are implemented in a consistent and rational approach, respectful of both sovereign and states’ rights.

Preserving and increasing the capacity of tribal law enforcement to implement sustainable and viable community policing strategies is paramount among the many goals of the COPS Office. As the national and global leader in advancing community policing, the COPS Office will continue to work closely with academics, law enforcement professionals, and criminal justice practitioners to strengthen community policing not only for tribal law enforcement, but for all law enforcement agencies throughout the United States.

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