FORT WASHAKIE—Mike Shockley is used to working alone. An officer in the Bureau of Indian Affairs police, he was until recently one of just two assigned to night patrols on the Wind River Indian Reservation, an area so vast that he sometimes drove 400 miles in a single shift. Backup? Forget about it. Chances are the other guy was 40 minutes away. As a reservation policeman, you learn to handle stuff on your own.
Not anymore. One night last month, the 37-year-old from Cheyenne was one of four officers who pulled up at a house in separate vehicles, emergency lights flashing, to investigate a report of underage drinking. Two set off in hot pursuit of a 16-year-old girl who had bolted out the back of the house. The pair tackled her in the dirt and the three of them went sprawling, with Shockley bringing up the rear. The teenager was led away in handcuffs.
To an observer, it looked a little like overkill. But that, more or less, is the point. Since early May, the Wind River Reservation police department has nearly quadrupled in size, from eight to 30 officers. The increase is part of a broader federal initiative to reduce crime on the Wind River and three other reservations—Mescalero Apache in New Mexico, Rocky Boy’s in Montana, and Standing Rock in North and South Dakota—by 5 percent over the next two years.
Officials hope that the program, dubbed Operation Alliance—and referred to in some quarters as “the surge”–can serve as a crime-fighting model for the entire reservation system, which has long suffered from high crime rates and a crippling dearth of police.
“Right now, we’re a very reactive agency because of the lack of resources we have,” Jason Thompson, acting deputy director of the BIA’s Office of Justice Services, said in a recent telephone interview. “We don’t get the same attention as other areas because crime problems are not as well known and don’t affect a larger portion of society.”
“This is a historical problem,” he added. “We’re at a point right now where something has to be done.”
Few would disagree. Crime in tribal communities is 2.5 times higher than the national average, and violent crime on some reservations is 20 times higher, according to BIA data. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that nearly 35 percent of indigenous women—more than one in three—will be raped at some point during their lives, more than 2.5 times the rate of sexual assault in the general US population.
At the same time, just 3000 officers—fewer than in Washington, D.C.—patrol 56 million acres of Indian country across the United States. The BIA has said it needs another 1900 officers to provide adequate protection. Yet the agency’s law-enforcement training institute, the Indian Police Academy in Artesia, New Mexico, graduates just 75 new officers a year. The law-enforcement problems have been aggravated by disputes among city, county, state, and federal agencies that often share or contest jurisdiction on reservations.
The Obama administration funded the latest initiative in its 2010 budget as part of what it says is a new focus on public safety in Indian country.
Similar pledges have been made in the past, of course. Moreover, even if the police surge is successful in the short term, there is no guarantee that Congress will pay for an expansion. But for now, BIA officials say they are thrilled with the extra manpower.
“We should operate no differently than mainstream America,” said Matthew Pryor, a BIA special agent who oversees law enforcement operations in Wyoming and five other states. “I’ve never had the opportunity to see what our full capabilities are.”
The Wind River reservation covers 2.2 million acres, a breathtaking expanse of grassy plains and cottonwood-lined draws that rises toward the snowy peaks of the Wind River Mountains in south-central Wyoming. Two tribes, the Northern Arapaho and the Eastern Shoshone, with a combined membership of around 7500, live within its borders. Alcoholism is rampant, and crime runs the gamut from gang activity to methamphetamine use to domestic violence, such as the murder in April of a 13-year-old girl–allegedly by her brother after he found her having sex with a step-cousin.
Until the recent police surge, Shockley, the night patrolman, was one of only six patrol officers and two investigators who worked out of the tiny BIA police station in Fort Washakie.
Married with two children, he is a personable, powerfully built man with a well-trimmed goatee and a deceptively easygoing manner. Shockley grew up on a ranch near Cheyenne and played football at Oregon State, where he also studied criminal justice. He began his law enforcement career as a sheriff’s deputy in Laramie and in 2008 transferred to the BIA police, taking advantage of a hiring preference for Native Americans (he is part Shawnee and Delaware).
Shockley joined the Wind River force after taking the 16-week course at the BIA’s law-enforcement academy, where the curriculum is tailored to the unique demands of reservation policing — such as what to do when confronting a dangerous situation alone in a remote area, perhaps with no radio or cell phone coverage. “You have to let them know that there is nothing wrong with retreating,” says Pryor, the special agent and a former instructor at the facility. “Just get out, if your backup is an hour away.”
Because of the manpower shortage, Shockley typically worked 12-hour shifts—6 p.m. to 6 a.m.—five days a week, often at a relentless pace. Three times he has sought hospital treatment for on-the-job injuries, in one case after a horse stepped on him while he was trying to arrest its owner. Once he managed to stun himself with his own Taser, when he fired it an uncooperative suspect and became tangled in its electrified wires. He carries bear spray for run-ins with hostile crowds.
“For a cop that likes to be busy and hands-on, this is the place to be,” he said.
Troublemakers on the reservation have long been aware of their numerical advantage, which is one reason why they often react to traffic stops by hitting the gas.
“I was in two pursuits in seven years at the sheriff’s office,” Shockley said. “I’ve been in 10 here. They just all run.” One young driver used his cell phone to record video of Shockley chasing him, then posted the scene on YouTube with the title, “Keep Trying Shockley” (the video has since been removed).
The recent arrival of temporary police officers—from the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation—has adjusted the balance of power. The loaner cops will work on the reservation until the arrival of new BIA recruits, who are currently in training at the academy in New Mexico. For the first time, the Wind River department will have the luxury of assigning two officers to work full-time in schools, while others may conduct foot patrols in some areas, in hopes of developing better relations with residents.
The agency recently permitted a reporter to accompany Shockley on two consecutive night shifts. It was clear from the start that he was still adjusting to the changes, to say nothing of the lost overtime pay. Soon after he pulled out of the station parking lot at the start of the first shift, a dispatcher alerted him to a drunk driver who had fled a traffic stop and taken refuge in a trailer home. As Shockley approached the home in his BIA vehicle–a white Chevy Tahoe–he could see that five other officers had gotten there first.
“That’s awesome,” he said, continuing on his way. “Never have I seen that before.”
Later, he found time to stop by Great Plains Hall in the town of Arapahoe, where families had gathered to watch a children’s basketball tournament. He watched for a while, chatted with an organizer. “This [community time] is something that’s completely foreign to us,” he marveled.
Shockley still had plenty to do. In the course of a few hours, he checked on three alcoholics who live under a bridge (“You guys get cold last night?”), shined a light into an abandoned warehouse, drove slowly through several dilapidated housing developments, and responded to a call from a woman who said she had heard prowlers in her corral. The woman, dressed in a bathrobe, met him at the door armed with a paintball gun and a baseball bat. Shockley searched the property, found no prowlers, and moved on.
At one point, Shockley came upon a horse roaming loose near the grounds of St. Stephens Mission School. He used his vehicle to herd it across a road and back into its pasture, then got out and fixed the break in the fence where the horse had escaped. “We do this a lot out here,” he said.
The next evening seemed to promise more excitement. One of Shockley’s colleagues had gotten a call from an informant, a Native gang member who said he had a tip about an impending fight. The colleague alerted Shockley, who drove out to the isolated house where the man has lived with his parents since getting out of prison. The man, dressed in baggy shorts and a black tee shirt, was in his late 30s. On the back of each hand was the number three, which denoted his membership in a Denver-based Crips gang called “303 Tre Tre.”
The informant claimed that fellow gang members were on their way up from Denver in a blue Honda, carrying weapons and a grudge against another gang on the reservation called the Lords of Arapaho. “They’re about an hour out,” he claimed. “They’re coming up 287. I just want to stop this thing before it starts.
The gang members never arrived, perhaps because they never were coming in the first place (“He’s bored and wants attention,” Shockley speculated later). But the warning could not be ignored. Police say that gang activity is increasing on the reservation. Stops signs and empty walls are tagged with gang graffiti and gangs’ territorial demarcations — sneakers tied together and tossed over telephone lines— can also be seen in some residential areas. But investigating gang violence is difficult because of the code of silence among members. “You go to the hospital, guy’s all smashed up, he doesn’t want to talk,” Shockley said. “It’s a gang issue.”
By all accounts, though, the biggest law-enforcement problem on the reservation is alcohol. Last year, a BIA officer on the reservation arrested more drunk drivers (57) than any officer anywhere else in Wyoming (Shockley, with 46 DUI collars, came in third). At times, Shockley said, he feels like a taxi driver, so often is he called upon to cart some inebriated malefactor off to jail or to the county detoxification center in Riverton.
Often the complaints come from family members. “I’ve had calls, ‘Come tell my son to go to bed,’” he said. “I get there, he’s 40.”
Many are repeat offenders, well known to Shockley and his colleagues. After midnight on the second shift, Shockley came to the assistance of a newly arrived officer from the Bureau of Land Management, who had arrested a young woman for public intoxication. “You get a fucking rez cop over here,” yelled the woman, dressed in white shorts and a blue sweatshirt. “Don’t you fucking touch me!”
She relaxed as soon as she saw Shockley coming her way. “I want to ride in Shockley’s car,” she said.
“You’re not doing meth again, are you Heather?” he asked.
The woman assured him that she wasn’t, and Shockley gently steered her into the back of his vehicle.
“Thank you for being here,” she said.
Photographs by Robert Durell
|John Lancaster, Writer: (website john-lancaster.com)
Lancaster is a former Washington Post correspondent who covered national environmental issues. the Pentagon and served as the newspaper’s bureau chief in Cairo and New Delhi. A free-lance since 2007, Lancaster has written for National Geographic, The New Republic, Slate, Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler and The Smart Set.
|Robert Durell, Photographer: (website robertdurellphoto.com)Durell is an award-winning free lance photographer based in Northern California. As a former staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times, Durell covered floods, fires and political turmoil for more than ten years, producing more than 5,000 published photographs. His subjects included meth addicts, a Down Syndrome boy trying to make it in a traditional classroom and an Arcata, Ca, neighborhood overtaken by medical marijuana cultivation.|