– Two law officers meeting over breakfast at the Lake of the Torches Casino had not gone there looking for trouble; but they found it when they walked out into the sunshine and saw two teenagers flashing bills in the parking lot.
Quickly, they patted down the teens, then searched their casino hotel room. They netted a pocketful of marijuana, four bottles of vodka and a 17-year-old girl who had told her parents she was visiting a friend in Minnesota.
A small-time bust by any standard, but this one in April represented something larger. The lawmen were Lac du Flambeau Tribal Police Capt. Bob Brandenburg and Wisconsin Justice Department Special Agent Tom Sturdivant, and the sight of a state agent working side-by-side with a tribal officer to fight reservation crime symbolized a new kind of teamwork.
And the effort to open communication and cooperation between tribal and state law enforcement agencies has gotten attention far from Wisconsin. While some have raised questions about the potential impact on tribal sovereignty, others point to the effectiveness of the new approach.
Over the past decade, gangs and drugs have run rampant in Indian country as bad guys realized the lightly policed reservations made ideal playgrounds.
In Wisconsin, the state Justice Department quietly coaxed tribes to band together into a one-of-a-kind task force that could be a template for other states dealing with reservation crime.
The team, branded the Native American Drug and Gang Initiative, or NADGI, has developed a core of Indian undercover officers, enabling them to infiltrate tribal drug rings, given every tribe access to the state’s central criminal data-sharing system and set up regular training for tribal drug officers.
“Five white guys driving nice vehicles in a (reservation) subdivision, we stand out like a sore thumb,” said Sturdivant, the task force leader. “Now we’ve got Native American guys. They know the friends and foes.”
Crime has long been a problem in Indian country, but the violence has spiked.
According to FBI statistics, homicides and non-negligent manslaughter on reservations increased 14 percent between 2002 and 2006. Robberies jumped 123 percent between 2002 and 2006. Most of that rise is linked to drugs, authorities say.
Reservations offer near-perfect hideouts and lucrative markets. They’re often remote, with few businesses and job opportunities. Reservation unemployment was 13.6 percent and almost 1-in-3 residents lived below the federal poverty line, according to the 2000 census. Selling drugs means easy money. Doing them means escape.
“There’s nothing for the kids here,” said Wanda LaBarge, a 48-year-old Lac Courte Oreilles tribal member who lives on the Lac du Flambeau reservation. “There’s no jobs. You see 10-year-old kids in little four to five member gangs walking and breaking windows. Something’s going to escalate.”
Reservations pose myriad problems for police.
They’re so large police can’t patrol them adequately. Tribal departments often are understaffed and lack training and money. The Lac du Flambeau Police Department has only nine full-time and four part-time officers to cover about 3,000 people spread out over 108 square miles, Chief Elliot Rising Sun said.
Many agencies do not share information with other police departments, choosing instead to keep the data to themselves. As a result, police struggle to connect crimes and criminals.
Arizona Department of Public Safety Detective Michelle Vasey said the 21 tribes in her state didn’t share any crime intelligence with anyone, even other tribes. She helped found a task force that meets monthly to share information, but only three tribes use the state’s criminal information data collection system.
“Anytime you talk about sovereignty, there’s going to be trust issues,” said Vasey, who also compared attitudes of some on reservation with those in small towns. “They don’t want anyone to know their small town isn’t a safe place to be.”
In Alaska, some tribal villages have refused to turn offenders over to state police, said Meg Peters, a spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers.
“They want to be sovereign,” Peters said. “A tribe might decide to dole out punishment on their own. They’ll turn us away and say they’ll do it.”
Family networks run deep through reservations, too, adding to the challenge for undercover officers, especially whites, to infiltrate drug rings.
Wisconsin is home to 11 tribes, their reservations scattered across the pine forests and lakes in the state’s northern third. About 38,250 people live on the eight reservations with tribal police departments. According to state Justice Department data, those agencies made 1,062 drug arrests between 2003 and 2006 – one arrest for every 36 people.
By 2002, the Latin Kings’ Milwaukee chapter had so infiltrated the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation the tribe declared a state of emergency, turning to state and federal authorities to help control runaway cocaine trafficking and violence. The resulting investigation landed 47 people in federal prison.
The Lac du Flambeau reservation’s idyllic setting in the wilderness about 20 miles from the border with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula masks downtrodden subdivisions and drugs changing hands behind closed doors. By 2006 multiple drug rings had sprung up across the reservation. Tribal police, state and area sheriff’s departments conducted a joint 18-month investigation that resulted in 27 arrests.
That year another investigation involving the state, sheriff’s deputies, tribal police and the FBI resulted in six arrests in a cocaine-marijuana ring on the Menominee reservation.
Investigators realized dealers were moving from reservation to reservation. State Justice Department officials decided to form a task force to go after large-scale rings and dealers.
Task forces are common in law enforcement; the FBI has established more than a dozen to deal with reservation crime, but they typically operate with one or two tribes at a time on a case-by-case basis. But Wisconsin’s version brought all eight tribal police agencies to the table – unheard of around the rest of the country.
The Justice Department won $461,000 in state and federal grants in 2007 and told Sturdivant to make it happen. The tall, bass-voiced agent had helped some of the tribes before, earning tribal police chiefs’ respect and vice versa.
“You have to treat (tribal officers) like equals,” Sturdivant said. “You have to check your attitude and ego at the door.”
But there were caveats, too.
The Menominee Tribal Legislature, for example, agreed to join if other members understood they would have to abide by Menominee ordinances on that reservation. No task force officers could conduct an investigation or make arrests on the reservation without a Menominee officer’s participation, tribal Chairwoman Lisa S. Waukau wrote in a letter authorizing participation.
Still, Oneida Police Chief Rich Van Boxtel said tribes had tried to come together for years. Finally they realized they were overwhelmed.
“Things were going to get worse before they got better,” Van Boxtel said. “By ourselves, independently, we wouldn’t have the resources to do anything with that.”
In 2008, the NADGI task force made 105 arrests and helped dismantle a major crack ring on the St. Croix Chippewa reservation, resulting in 11 federal indictments, the state Justice Department said. As of mid-April this year, the team had made 59 arrests.
All the tribes now use the state’s data-sharing network. The state covers tribal officers’ overtime for NADGI operations, outfits the tribal agencies with surveillance equipment and trains tribal officers on everything from establishing informants to writing reports. In return, the tribal officers share what they know.
On a recent morning on the Oneida reservation just outside Green Bay, Sturdivant ran about a dozen tribal officers through a crash course in SWAT tactics moments before they stormed a suspected drug house. He showed them how to cover each other as they burst in, clear the home of threats and quickly handcuff anyone they encountered. The officers followed everything to the letter and the raid went off without incident.
“It’s a big, big thing for us,” Larry Jordan, an Oneida officer and NADGI task force member, said of having Sturdivant help with training. “It’s a motivating factor for everyone here to work as a team.”
Minnesota and Wisconsin are using NADGI as a model for the Indian Crime Awareness, Research and Evaluation project, a common communication network for state, federal and tribal law enforcement agencies.
A NADGI subprogram that encourages tribes to share strategies for quickly placing children discovered during drug busts, too, is a model for similar efforts in Washington state and BIA law enforcement training.
Not everyone sings NADGI’s praises.
“They’ve got this big task force. It’s not working,” said former Lac du Flambeau tribal chairman Tom Maulson. “Today we’ve got kids drinking and drugging so bad on the reservation.”
In interviews, half-a-dozen people on the Lac du Flambeau reservation said they had never heard of the task force. They all complained the tribe needs to get tough on drugs, particularly prescription drugs, or risk losing its youth forever. But none would give their name, illustrating again a distrust of outsiders.
People don’t want to take responsibility for their community, said Nick Pendergast, another Lac du Flambeau drug investigator. In April, the tribal government held a community meeting to discuss crime. Ten people showed up, he said.
“It’s sad to say, but I believe it’s going to be the same,” Pendergast said.
Sturdivant is more optimistic. NADGI’s efforts can put dealers in prison and impede the drug trade at least for a while, he said, and he hopes to get enough federal stimulus dollars for NADGI so each tribe can devote at least one officer to full-time drug investigations. But lasting success depends on winning over the people, he said.
“Develop trust,” he said. “We’re breaking down the communication barriers. … (but) we’re a work in progress.”