Bill giving tribal cops more authority over non-Indians revisited

RIVERTON — Public transparency and control by local officials were obstacles identified in the revival of a defunct piece of 2013 legislation that would give jurisdiction over non-tribal members to Bureau of Indian Affairs police officers. 

The Wyoming Legislative Select Committee on Tribal Relations met Tuesday to revisit the suppressed HB 27. 

The bill proposes to give Bureau of Indian Affairs police officers the authority to cite or arrest non-enrolled offenders of traffic laws while on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Currently, BIA agents may stop a drunk driver or other type of traffic offender on the reservation, but, finding that the offender is not enrolled in an American Indian tribe, the agents then must call either the Wyoming Highway Patrol or Fremont County Sheriff’s Office to continue the case. 

BIA chief of police for the Wind River Police Department Tony Larvie said the bill would give his force “more well-rounded law-enforcement coverage on the reservation.” 

Larvie said his officers operate 24/7, whereas WHP troopers are on an on-call basis from about 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. In past presentations Larvie had also called the delay in response by county and state law enforcement, due to vast geographical separations in the county, concerning.

“In these modern times I think it would be more appropriate for us to have full law enforcement in our area, at least in regard to traffic enforcement, and (driving while under the influence) enforcement,” he said, adding that the stop-and-wait system would still be used for major crimes. 

Fremont County Sheriff Ryan Lee said the idea of multiplying police forces sounded good in theory, but would not be in the people’s best interests because BIA is not overseen by an elected official, nor does it report to the press. 

“There’s no local control over that agency, if you will, meaning there’s no mayor, there’s not a city council; there’s not an elected sheriff who oversees that particular police force in the community,” said Lee. “I’d also like to bring the fact to light that there is an issue of transparency through comment to the public, especially to the local press. When we are talking about releasing information to the media about incidents that occur within the area, there obviously are bureaucratic policies outside the control of chief Larvie, at the federal level, that prevent him from talking to the local media about issues that occur.” 

The BIA does not dispatch a daily call record for its police force, like the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office and municipal police forces in the county do. Also, the BIA force on the reservation does not respond directly to media requests for comment, but routes those requests through higher departments in Billings, Montana or Washington D.C., or through documented requests for federal information that can take weeks to yield a response, if any. 

“Our media-related issues have to be routed through our media specialists,” said Larvie. “That doesn’t mean we’re not transparent. It means that often-times the information is delayed in getting to the media.” 

In response to Larvie’s comments, Lee said BIA is transparent in agency relations, but not with the public. 

“I don’t know where this media representative resides or where they’re stationed out of,” he said. “I routinely deal with the press on a daily basis; that’s part of my job: being transparent to the public. And I know that (reporters) talk with me on a constant basis about how they are unable to get information from the Wind River Police Department (BIA) regarding incidents that occur within their jurisdiction. It has been brought to my attention multiple times over the last decade.” 

Otherwise in favor of the bill, both State. Rep Andi Clifford, D-Ethete, and Northern Arapaho Business Council member Stephen Fasthorse said they, too, have come head to head with obstacles relating to a lack of police transparency on the reservation. 

“Sheriff Lee, I understand your concern on the transparency part,” said Clifford. “Chief Larvie I know this is not your fault -- it’s layered -- there’s a lot of red tape with the BIA. But I’ve been mad a lot of times because we’ve lacked transparency. Major crime happens here and we want to know answers… We don’t get that for a long, long time, and a lot of the people here on the reservation are just left out of the loop.”

Clifford is an enrolled Northern Arapaho Tribal member. 

Fasthorse said at times the lack of transparency by the federal entity is enough to make the governing body consider forming its own police force. 

“We’ve been wrangling with the BIA same as you guys are. We’re the ones that wrestle with it day to day,” said Fasthorse, saying NABC has discussed “at what point do we consider our option of… (adopting) our own police force here on the reservation.” 

Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun also presented before the committee, saying he agreed with the sheriff on the matter and felt another problem with entitling BIA officers with jurisdiction over non-enrolled offenders on the reservation also relates to high turnover rates in the force. 

“I’ve prosecuted in every (state) court in Fremont County numerous jury trials over the last decade,” began LeBrun, “and during that time I’ve had more than a few cases where a BIA agent needed to be a witness for whatever reason… and because of the nature of the agency, that it’s a nationwide agency, it’s rare that we have BIA officers that are here for an extended period of time.”

LeBrun said the turnover made prosecutorial follow-up difficult. 

Larvie acknowledged the high turnover rates. 

Lee proposed that, rather than enacting a bill deputizing federal police, he and Larvie should cross-deputize on a specific and vetted basis. He said that although Larvie is constrained by federal opacity standards, the chief is “a great leader,” and the two agencies work well together in backup situations. 

The sheriff said he may, if needed, select from among BIA agents a few who are locally based and understand both the region and Wyoming law, and cross-deputize those for the express purpose of enforcing traffic violations by non-enrollees on reservation roads. 

This way, said Lee, the activities of those officers pertaining to non-natives would defer to his operational policy of public transparency. 

State Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, still hoped to see the bill produced. 

She asked the sheriff if adding stipulations into the bill compelling federal agents to report to the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office regarding non-enrolled offenders would alleviate his concerns. 

“That’s a possibility,” responded Lee, “however I would indicate that if it’s across the board -- if all (federal) officers are cross-deputized -- I don’t have the ability to track that or keep on top of that many officers.” 

The turnover rates, Lee said, also would complicate his ability to track and publish contacts between law enforcement and the public as he does through his own deputies. 

Another of Lee’s concerns was that the people have no recourse to elect a new law enforcement leader on the reservation if they dislike how the federal force operates. 

“(Larvie) is hired; his boss is out of state,” he noted. 

Larvie confirmed that his is not an elected position but a competitive hire position. 

State Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, asked Lee if he had similar concerns with WHP not deferring to a local elected official. 

Col. Kebin Haller of WHP was appointed by the director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation with the approval of the governor. 

Lee responded that Haller’s position, while not based in county, still defers to an elected official in the state of Wyoming. 

As the topic waned, Larsen and Case said it would be best for Ellis to gather a sub-committee to develop a version of HB 27 that would address the county officials’ concerns of local control and media transparency.

Clifford hoped to advance the bill during that same meeting. 

“With all due respect, in listening to the tribal leaders, with everyone at the table, I think we’re here. I think we should just move it forward now,” she said. 

The Ethete delegate then made a motion to work the bill, but no committee member seconded the motion, and it died. 

Case then moved to have Ellis and Clifford reword the bill until the next meeting, and his motion was seconded and approved.