Officials examine allowing reservation police to arrest non-tribal members

RIVERTON — Wind River Police Department agents might not have to wait for a law to let them cite or arrest non-native offenders on the Wind River Indian Reservation

Fremont County Sheriff Ryan Lee and State Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, disagree with the change.

WRPD officers - who are commissioned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs - have authority to arrest and cite Northern Arapaho or Eastern Shoshone tribal members. However, members of the federal force can only stop and hold offenders who are not enrolled tribal members, while waiting for state or county police agents to arrive on scene and make arrests or citations.

"Due to the large area of coverage, (it is not) uncommon to wait an hour or longer for assistance from another outside agency to arrive on scene," said WRPD chief Tony Larvie, who called the system of waiting for agents from another force to issue citations inefficient.

That large expanse of land, coupled with what Larvie called "the volume of activity" on the reservation, is one of the reasons Wyoming Highway Patrol Col. Kebin Haller compels every WHP trooper in the Fremont County area to earn federal law enforcement, or "select," certification.

Now, Haller and Larvie hope to take that cross-deputation one step further and ask the state to certify WRPD agents to enforce state laws, in addition to federal and tribal ones, so that tribal officers can cite non-enrollees on the reservation.

Wyoming Peace Officer Standards and Training requirements mandate 14 weeks of training and study for state certification, but Haller and Larvie are hoping to boil that number down to two weeks or less using an equivalency recognition process.

Giving local police authority to federal agents, however, is not without consequences, said Lee, who emphasized law enforcement entities' responsibility toward the people, and the regions, in which they keep the peace.

Lee said that the BIA and the FCSO work well together and have for many years, and added that state certification is a good force multiplier - in theory.

"However," he said, "there's one glaring issue, and that is, there's no local control" when a federal police force has statutory authority over a community's citizens:

"As a citizen, if you don't like the way the sheriff's office is running, there's a process to change that, through election," he said.

But in deputizing federal agents to enforce state laws, citizens face "1,900 miles of red tape between Fremont County and Washington D.C." - a bureaucratic gulf far less vulnerable to local influence - and concerns - said Lee.

None of the sheriff's deputies is select-certified to enforce tribal codes or federal laws on the reservation, but the agency is capable of assisting the WRPD as backup at the latter's request.

Lawmakers at a Wyoming Legislative Tribal Relations subcommittee meeting last month sought to revive a defunct 2013 proposed bill that would grant Indian Country agents inherent law enforcement authority over non-enrolled offenders, with no further training required.

Of proposed House Bill 27, State Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, said, "Just in full candor, I am dying to dust that sucker off."

Legislators did not re-submit the bill at that time but said they hoped to during the next interim period following the 2020 legislative session.

The bill got "tripped up, I will say, for political reasons," State Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, said.

State Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, added that the bill "caused a lot of angst here in Fremont County."

"There's some folks in the Riverton area that were really concerned about it, for really no reason," he said.

Opposition to the bill, however, was rooted in the language of the Wyoming Constitution, according to State Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton.

"I was opposed to that before, and I still am," Bebout said, adding that the sheriffs in each county are the clear law enforcement assignees of the state through the Constitution, and that not just enforcement, but funding as well, should remain localized.

"Our sheriff and our highway patrol should take care of the roads we built and the issues there in terms of citation," he said. "I think our Constitution clearly says who is responsible" for regional law enforcement oversight under the state government.

If the WPOST commission approves an equivalency recognition to fast-track state certification for WRPD officers, WPOST director Chris Walsh would compare the federal and state training programs and pronounce which training components remain unmet by WRPD officers, then place those components in a comprehensive program to address "those specific Wyoming details (BIA officers) wouldn't get in the federal facility."

"It's not a very difficult transition," Walsh said.

Larvie said the basic training BIA officer receive is "very comparable in many areas to the state basic training at the Wyoming Police Academy."

"The major difference is the Indian Police Academy focuses on rural policing and provides training on the enforcement of federal law in Indian Country," he said.

However, said Walsh, there is no immediate push to cross-deputize WRPD agents within the commission - yet.

"Right now there's not even a formal request before the commission," Walsh said, adding that Larvie and Haller have broached the topic of the equivalency program only in discussion so far, but that the agencies have a "cooperative" relationship.

When asked if state certification would grant WRPD agents the ability to cite offenders for crimes occurring outside the boundaries of the reservation, Walsh said, "That would really be up to the community."

Agreements between the surrounding towns and the reservation, he said, would define jurisdictional boundaries for police.