Legislators look to address public safety on reservation

CASPER — Wyoming lawmakers are moving ahead with some legislation meant to help improve Wind River Reservation public safety while considering additional legislation with the same goal.

The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee recently voted to sponsor a bill addressing some issues surrounding Wyoming’s missing and murdered Indigenous people. Lawmakers have also said they’d like to pursue a proposal to allow tribal police officers to arrest or cite non-Native American offenders.

On Oct. 31, the Judiciary Committee voted to sponsor a proposal that would help give advocates and law enforcement a clearer picture of the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous people in the state. It would also require law enforcement cooperation with tribal agencies and cover emergency alerts and additional training.

The Legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations voted in August to forward a draft bill to the committee.

“Our bill does four things, and these are all things that are consistent with (what) other states are doing,” Select Committee on Tribal Relations member and bill author Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, told the committee. “And when you combine them together, it provides for a pretty impressive package.”

If passed, the bill would, among other things: require the state Department of Criminal Investigation to gather and publish data on missing people and include their biographical data; require law enforcement agencies in Wyoming to cooperate with those efforts; have DCI offer training on missing and murdered Indigenous people for attorneys, prosecutors, judges and law enforcement agencies; and require the state to assist the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes if they choose to implement and manage their own Amber Alert system.

Experts and advocates say more impactful change needs to come from the federal government. Still, the bill would be a first step for the state — which also has a task force examining the topic — as it, other states and the federal government begin to recognize the problem and look for solutions.

It’s unclear exactly how many Indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been murdered nationwide or in Wyoming. However, Wyoming officials reported 107 missing Native Americans to the National Crime Information Center last year.

Also, more than four in five Indigenous women and men have experienced violence in their lifetime, according to a 2016 National Institute of Justice study.

On Wind River, more than 70 people — mostly underage runaways who were vulnerable, had a history of being victims or had a history with substance abuse — had been reported missing as of August, Wind River Reservation Police Chief Tony Larvie told the tribal relations committee at the time.

Both Wyoming tribes endorse the proposal.

In a letter to lawmakers dated Oct. 15, Eastern Shoshone Business Council Chairman Vernon Hill pushed the Legislature to pass the bill. He said tribal leaders supported the proposal and provided input during the drafting process, adding that the tribes already work with state law enforcement agencies and “welcome any new ideas to assist us in expanding our cooperation and coordination for public safety.”

“It has been a longstanding priority of the Tribe to advocate (for) and support ... public safety for our tribal members, community, reservation and the state as a whole,” Hill wrote. “We feel that is the utmost importance to us.”

Though not specific to missing and murdered Indigenous people in Wyoming, Ellis recently said the proposal would improve public safety on Wind River by essentially eliminating some jurisdictional limitations that can make policing more complicated when on a reservation or involving a person enrolled in a tribe.

At a Select Committee on Tribal Relations meeting in Fort Washakie last month, Ellis, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, said she’d like to revive a failed 2013 proposal that would have allowed tribal police to issue citations to or arrest offenders who weren’t Native American.

“I am dying to dust that sucker off,” she said.

Wyoming Highway Patrol Col. Kebin Haller told the committee that 10 troopers in the Fremont County area had completed special training through the federal government and already have the ability to enforce state laws with offenders who are enrolled in either of the two Wind River tribes on the reservation or assist tribal police with calls.

And while Wind River Police Department officers can go through training to be able to do the same with non-Native offenders, Haller said that training is more “burdensome” than what the Highway Patrol troopers had to complete. He said the proposal would allow law enforcement agencies to more effectively cover a larger area.

Committee member Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, said it’s time “to bring that 360 (degrees) and allow tribal police to also be able to issue citations to non-tribal members while on tribal land.”

“It would be a great benefit for enforcing state law on tribal land,” he said.

When a similar proposal limited to traffic citations was first floated in 2013, lawmakers said the bill failed for political reasons.

“It caused a lot of angst in Fremont County,” said Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, who led the tribal relations committee when the bill was first proposed. “There’s some folks over in the Riverton area that were really concerned about it for really no reason.”