LACKING LAW ENFORCEMENT: As crime on the Crow reservation increases, so must the police force that protects

Story by Zeno Wicks IV
Pho­tos by Louise Johns


AT 8:40 P.M., a Ford Crown Vic­to­ria patrol car turned on its lights and sped down the frontage road to Hardin, leav­ing the dis­patcher alone at Crow police head­quar­ters. Within the fol­low­ing half hour she would answer a call for police in Crow Agency, but no offi­cer was avail­able to respond. Nearly 50 min­utes would pass before the Crown Vic­to­ria would return to the small brick build­ing, located off Inter­state 90 near the Lit­tle Bighorn Bat­tle­field National Monument.

The vehi­cle would remain parked, its engine run­ning and tail lights glow­ing red in the wan­ing day­light of March 29. Five min­utes later, tribal police offi­cer Jeff Grisham rushed back into the run­ning car and drove north out of the lot to respond to a call near Lit­tle Bighorn College.

The 2-mile road bends east past the grand­stand, a 200-foot-tall struc­ture for rodeos and other events, and wraps back over Custer Creek into town. Kitty-corner to cam­pus, on the south­east side, is a cul de sac with trail­ers and homes of vary­ing conditions.

Thirty min­utes ear­lier Bernadette Charette, who lives at the end of the cul de sac near Custer Creek, put on her blue robe and slip­pers to let out LaFee and Molly — a schnau­zer and a toy fox ter­rier. Out­side the two dogs bolted under the camper parked on the front lawn of the small blue home.

Charette, 78, focused through her large, round spec­ta­cles on the blue house across the way.

A moldy and tat­tered mat­tress sat just below the sill.

As her eyes adjusted, Charette noticed the vague out­line of a girl in the cor­ner of the house near the mat­tress. The girl stood still, shiv­er­ing. They made eye con­tact. Charette, a small woman with white hair and hunched back imme­di­ately turned towards the camper.

Molly! LaFee!” she whis­pered urgently, open­ing the front door. “Get inside!”

She locked the door behind her and told her hus­band, Fred, what she saw. They waited up the next half hour, but there was no move­ment outside.

There was no response to the call for police.

Bernadette and Fred Charette sit with their dog, Molly, in Bernadette’s home in Crow Agency. As a young girl, Bernadette lived in the same house before moving away to be a school teacher. She returned six years ago when her grandmother left her the house. Bernadette says that although much has changed in Crow Agency since she grew up there, she still feels safe living there.

After decid­ing it was safe to sleep they headed to bed. It was then, Charette noticed the search lights of a tribal officer’s car. The light passed over their home and then the home across the way, illu­mi­nat­ing the mat­tress and the cor­ner. The girl was gone.

Shortly after, another car arrived. Dorothea Adams, Charette’s neigh­bor, had called the police because a grand­daugh­ter had shown up to her house drunk. It’s ille­gal to drink on the Crow reser­va­tion. When Grisham and tribal offi­cer Tim Smells knocked on the door of Adams’ new green double-wide trailer home, she answered, but her grand­daugh­ter had run long ago.

She knows she isn’t sup­posed to be there drunk,” Grisham later says. “Dorothea has to call them in some­times.”
On a busy week­end night, though, offi­cers aren’t able to respond in time to such calls. Unlike Adams, but like most on the Crow Reser­va­tion, Charette reacted differently.

I didn’t call the police,” Charette later said. “I don’t call the police.”

CHARETTE’S FEELINGS are shared by a major­ity on Crow. And not with­out reason.

The reser­va­tion has a com­pli­cated pub­lic safety sys­tem that con­sists of both a tribal police force and a larger fed­eral law enforce­ment agency, run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Jus­tice Ser­vices. The BIA, which has full juris­dic­tion over the Crow reser­va­tion, is a small divi­sion of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. This means per­son­nel con­stantly changes as offi­cers seek out higher BIA or fed­eral posi­tions for higher pay, stature and improved benefits.

In 20 years, the Crow has been unable to cre­ate a ver­sion of its own steady law enforce­ment team to serve and pro­tect the reser­va­tion with any kind of consistency.

The result is an increas­ing polar­iza­tion between the BIA police and the tribe whose laws they are con­tracted to enforce. There has also been a steady increase in crime for more than three decades.

The greatest challenge for law enforcement officials on the Crow reservation is covering the vast territory. The area near Wyola is about 36 miles from the Crow Agency headquarters. Other areas such as Pryor are up to 90 miles away.As a smaller part of the larger BIA sys­tem, the Crow have seen sev­eral suc­cess­ful police chiefs come and go. Effec­tive lead­ers are even­tu­ally chan­neled into higher posi­tions, mak­ing the Crow reser­va­tion a mere stop toward greater opportunity.

Despite his efforts to improve enforce­ment on the reser­va­tion, Tony Larvie is a recent exam­ple in his­tory of this upward momentum.

Larvie was appointed chief of police Decem­ber 2011. At the time, he was a drug inves­ti­ga­tor for the BIA Offices of Jus­tice Ser­vices in Billings. He was hired in the wake of Crow’s most vio­lent year in recent his­tory. Accord­ing to the BIA Jus­tice Depart­ment, in 2011, stab­bings and shoot­ings claimed the lives of five — four in Lodge Grass and one in Pryor — along with 45 other seri­ous inci­dents includ­ing aggra­vated assault, arson and sex­ual offenses.

Larvie reports the Crow police depart­ment had a total of nine offi­cers, tribal and BIA, when he arrived. But with Larvie came a rush of sup­port from both the Crow tribe and the BIA for more police officers.

Tribal offi­cers, who are sup­ported through the Crow tribe and trained in state acad­e­mies, were given more fund­ing through grants sup­plied by the Crow tribe. The Wash­ing­ton D.C.-based BIA offices also allo­cated money for more offi­cers, who are trained at a fed­eral base in New Mex­ico. In total, Larvie’s law enforce­ment staff more than doubled.

Dur­ing the sum­mer of 2012, Crow admin­is­tra­tive offi­cials reported 10 BIA patrol offi­cers, six tribal police offi­cers, two super­vi­sory advi­sors, and three inves­ti­ga­tors at the sta­tion. Larvie believes the increase helped lead to more arrests for dis­or­derly con­duct, pub­lic nui­sance and drinking-related offenses in 2012.

These arrests, he said, have a cor­re­la­tion to the nearly 20 per­cent decrease in more seri­ous crimes recorded in 2012 — the BIA Jus­tice Depart­ment recorded 42 seri­ous inci­dents the entire year.

But the flaw remains.

Larvie is no longer police chief. And many of the posi­tions cre­ated dur­ing his tenure are now vacant.

THE MAIN entrance of head­quar­ters was blocked with unused cab­i­nets, boxes and exer­cise equip­ment. The east entrance is used by both police and the gen­eral public.

Upon return­ing from the failed search of Dorothea Adams’ grand­daugh­ter, Grisham parked his patrol vehi­cle near the oth­ers. A light from the west win­dow illu­mi­nated a Ford truck, inves­ti­ga­tion van, and eight Ford Explor­ers parked in two per­pen­dic­u­lar lines on the grass. They haven’t been moved in years because they don’t have the tribal offi­cers to drive them.

Four days later in the Crow police meet­ing room, Grisham recalled the evening. Grisham is a wide man for 5 feet 9 inches. His black BIA garb was uncom­fort­ably tight over the bul­let proof vest he wore.

Grisham said such busy week­end nights, which require long hours, are why he wants to switch to BIA. And the rea­son so many tribal cars sit vacant.Jeff Grisham is a tribal police officer stationed in Lodge Grass on the Crow Indian Reservation. Although the tribe funds tribal police officers, they still operate under the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Grisham said eventually he would become a BIA officer for the higher pay and benefits.

The bad thing about being a tribal offi­cer is that we don’t get ben­e­fits, health insur­ance, retire­ment. And there is always the job secu­rity. There’s always things going on with the tribe and who knows where cuts are going to be made,” Grisham said with a chew tucked in his right lip. “I think that with a major­ity of the tribal guys that we have, every­one has men­tioned that they want to go Bureau.”

Down the hall Police Chief Jose Figueroa Jr. sat at his wood desk. Var­i­ous papers were stacked on the dressers sur­round­ing the room. A door lead­ing to a back patio was blocked by a cab­i­net. In front of him, two Dell mon­i­tors dis­played sep­a­rate email drafts.

Figueroa became police chief in August 2013. He is the sec­ond since Larvie was pro­moted to dis­trict direc­tor of drug enforce­ment in Billings in Feb­ru­ary 2013. He is aware of the allure that the BIA has for many of his officers.

The per­cep­tion is that every­one that goes to Crow, typ­i­cally, goes on to big­ger and bet­ter things,” Figueroa said, lean­ing back in his leather chair. “And that’s what most of the staff has asked me, ‘How long are you going to be here?’”

Both of Figueroa’s pre­de­ces­sors were pro­moted to Billings. The cur­rent BIA Jus­tice Depart­ment Direc­tor in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Dar­ren Cruzan, spent just under a year at Crow in 2004 before con­tin­u­ing up the pro­mo­tion chain. Indeed, it seems the nat­ural tra­jec­tory for those police chiefs that pass through Crow is up. This has kept Crow police num­bers down.

First and fore­most, as you can see on the board,” Figueroa said, point­ing to a white­board list­ing Crow offi­cers. “We need to get more guys here.”

Figueroa is tall, more than six feet. His hair is cut high and tight, expos­ing a broad fore­head and thin eye­brows. He is half Mex­i­can, but grew up Assini­boine and Sioux on the Fort Peck Reser­va­tion. He has a wide smile betray­ing the red eyes and heavy sock­ets of a thought­ful man low on sleep.

Writ­ten in red dry-erase marker was Figueroa’s name along with the names of six BIA offi­cers, a lieu­tenant and two tribal offi­cers. Addi­tion­ally, two names filled the slots next to Sex Offender Reg­is­tra­tion and Noti­fi­ca­tion Act offi­cer and High­way Patrol offi­cer. Four BIA offi­cers posi­tions, along with one tribal posi­tion, were blank.

Figueroa said the BIA pro­vides fund­ing for 15 offi­cers, includ­ing a police chief and two lieu­tenants, and the tribe pays for three tribal offi­cers and han­dles grants for three spe­cialty offi­cers. He has more bud­get for more offi­cers than Larvie did just two years before. But the offi­cers aren’t there to fill the positions.

Just as police chiefs are pumped through Crow, so are BIA offi­cers. Figueroa said it’s stan­dard for the BIA to re-assign offi­cers to dif­fer­ent reser­va­tions as needed.

When I first got here in August, I estab­lished a Lodge Grass offi­cer and a Pryor offi­cer because that’s where our needs are,” Figueroa said. “And we had five guys then, but we have lost five guys since then.”

The Pryor offi­cer is no longer, and Figueroa keeps up with the duties of the four empty BIA offi­cer positions.

OF THE seven reser­va­tions in Mon­tana, three uti­lize their own tribal law enforce­ment, two uti­lize state law enforce­ment and laws, while two con­tract through the BIA. Crow falls in the lat­ter while still employ­ing a few tribal offi­cers. But many on Crow believe the tribe should employ its own police force.

The biggest prob­lem we have here is that the guys that we have here on the ground want to do the work, but they’re being dic­tated by peo­ple out of the area office, which is in Billings. They don’t under­stand what is going on here,” said Tribal Chair­man Dar­ren Old Coy­ote in his office in the Crow Tribal Admin­is­tra­tion Build­ing. “And that is the biggest prob­lem because they have to answer to an out­side entity, where we are sit­ting here and we know the prob­lems, and where to do this and that.”

Old Coy­ote says to get rid of the prob­lem, the tribe would have to invoke Pub­lic Law 93–638, the Indian Self-Determination and Edu­ca­tion Assis­tance Act of 1975, which allows U.S. tribes to con­tract from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment a num­ber of pub­lic ser­vice pro­grams such as health care, law enforce­ment and education.

By “638-ing” the entire pro­gram, the Crow would receive the fed­eral dol­lars that are cur­rently used to pay for the fed­eral BIA police force and use that to run a tribal law enforce­ment program.

That’s an option that we are look­ing at,” Old Coy­ote said, “but at the same time we are mind­ful of the lia­bil­i­ties that we would have to assume.”

Horses roam on the lawn of the Crow police department in Crow Agency. Even after 638, fed­eral grants would not be near enough to pay for a law enforce­ment agency large enough to appro­pri­ately cover the Crow reser­va­tion. At 2.3 mil­lion acres, Crow is the largest reser­va­tion in Mon­tana. To suf­fi­ciently cover the land, Crow needs a police force larger than the aver­age reser­va­tion, which would mean the need for more money.

Direc­tor of Crow Land Secu­rity Henry “Hank” Rides Horse, said there would need to be 35 police on staff to appro­pri­ately cover the reser­va­tion. A num­ber, Rides Horse believes would cost roughly $2.5 mil­lion dol­lars annually.

Our next step is to be uti­liz­ing our resources. And in doing so, we won’t be ask­ing from the U.S. gov­ern­ment,” Rides Horse said. He added that the tribe has sev­eral nat­ural resources, includ­ing coal, water and tourism. “We have to start uti­liz­ing them in order to be self suf­fi­cient, not only law enforce­ment, but the whole government.”

THE CROW tribe has tried to oper­ate its own law enforce­ment before. Since the 1905 ter­ri­to­r­ial estab­lish­ment, Crow had been in charge of cre­at­ing and enforc­ing their own laws within the reservation.

In 1980 the Crow police began to sup­ple­ment tribal offi­cers with BIA inves­ti­ga­tors. But it wasn’t until 1990 that the tribe’s police force began con­tract­ing a major­ity of their law enforce­ment through the BIA.

In the early ‘70s, Thomas Lar­son Med­i­cine­horse, 74, was a tribal offi­cer based out of Crow Agency. He says that dur­ing that time, there were also sub­sta­tions in Lodge Grass and Pryor.

When Med­i­cine­horse was 23, he decided to attend the BIA police acad­emy, and enrolled in the first grad­u­at­ing class. In 1990 he returned to the reser­va­tion and ran for sher­iff of Big Horn County to bat­tle the racial pro­fil­ing Crow tribal mem­bers reported expe­ri­enc­ing by sheriff’s deputies. He became the first Crow sher­iff of the county, a posi­tion he held for 16 years.

But as civil rights and law enforce­ment took a large step for­ward at the county, tribal law enforce­ment faced cri­sis on the reser­va­tion. Finan­cial cuts hit Crow police the hardest.

Thomas Larson Medicinehorse and his wife, Patti Medicinehorse, sit in their house in Crow Agency. Larson was the first Native American to become sheriff of Hardin County. He was sheriff for 16 years before being nominated for Sheriff of the Year in 2002. The tribal offi­cers were qual­i­fied to do their work,” Med­i­cine­horse says. “It was the lead­er­ship. Some peo­ple were advanced beyond their capa­bil­i­ties, and then the tribe used up the money. So the tribal police were left with­out funds. They didn’t have no money to go out and patrol. And they only had about five or six offi­cers at that time, because they couldn’t hire anymore.”

Sid­ney “Chip­per” Fitz­patrick Jr., who was the offi­cer sta­tioned in Pryor, was one of those to leave. He had been the D.A.R.E. offi­cer for Pryor High School, but the tribe offered few ben­e­fits to law enforce­ment offi­cers, ben­e­fits offered with a job at the BIA. He was the last offi­cer sta­tioned in Pryor for more than two decades.

I think that when I left, it changed then,” Chip­per said. “And there is more peo­ple. When I was a cop, we were at about 7,000, now we are up to 13,000.”

But until the Crow can revert to the old sys­tem, Chip­per, now Bighorn County Com­mis­sioner, believes the com­mu­ni­ca­tion between law enforce­ment and Crow cit­i­zens needs to improve.

It’s not just law enforce­ment, it’s every­body. It’s the com­mu­nity that net­works together to tackle this issue — vio­lence, drugs and alco­hol,” Chip­per said. “Just the law enforce­ment ain’t gonna’ change it, we need to change as a reservation.”

TO FACILITATE net­work­ing between com­mu­nity and law enforce­ment, the Crow have assigned an inno­v­a­tive posi­tion, direc­tor of pub­lic safety, to an inno­v­a­tive individual.

William Falls Down sat at the wooden desk he found aban­doned in the east wing of the Crow Tribal Admin­is­tra­tion build­ing. He wore a red, button-down shirt, black jeans and black cow­boy boots. Falls Down’s wide smile showed dis­placed teeth.

He was hired when Old Coy­ote was elected and adapted a room tucked in the mid­dle of the admin­is­tra­tion build­ing. He is a Repub­li­can sur­rounded by a pre­dom­i­nantly lib­eral staff. It is his expe­ri­ence that got him to the position.

Falls Down has been in law enforce­ment for more than 28 years. As a BIA offi­cer, he has served in 87 dif­fer­ent reser­va­tions in a vari­ety of positions.

Born Crow, Falls Down returned to his reser­va­tion to serve with Crow Fish and Game before switch­ing to direc­tor of pub­lic safety. Through his expe­ri­ence, Falls Down also believes the tribe should take over the pub­lic safety pro­gram. But he doesn’t believe it will hap­pen any­time soon, even under the admin­is­tra­tion that hired him. Thus he looks at what he can do with the BIA offi­cials he is given.

We give them (the BIA) the author­ity to super­vise our tribal offi­cers,” Falls Down said. “The chief of police, Jose Figueroa, works with me on a daily basis on the daily func­tions of the tribal police.”

Since start­ing his posi­tion, Falls Down said Figueroa is the first BIA Police Chief that has been eager to work with the tribal offi­cers the Crow sup­ply. Their work­ing rela­tion­ship goes back to Figueroa’s child­hood when Falls Down used to babysit him on the Fort Peck Reservation.

Figueroa said their close­ness has opened up a dia­logue that he is sur­prised didn’t hap­pen before.

We both said that we have to work together. We can­not not work together. It doesn’t work that way,” Figueroa said. “I don’t know why they had these issues before, but we have to work together. The gov­ern­ment and tribal still have to inter­twine because we are both try­ing to accom­plish the same mis­sion, which is ser­vices to the com­mu­nity and pro­tec­tion.”