- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009


The 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.

They quickly 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 arrest 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.

The effort to open communication and cooperation between tribal and state law enforcement agencies has generated 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 (NADGI), has developed a core of Indian undercover officers and enabled them to infiltrate tribal drug rings. The program has 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 Mr. 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 hide-outs and lucrative markets. They’re often remote, with few businesses and job opportunities. Reservation unemployment was 13.6 percent, and almost one in three residents lived below the federal poverty line, according to the 2000 census. Selling drugs means easy money. Using 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 that police can’t patrol them adequately. Tribal departments often are understaffed and lack training and money. The Lac du Flambeau Police Department has nine full-time and four part-time officers to cover about 3,000 people spread over 108 square miles, Chief Elliot Rising Sun said.

Many agencies do not share information with other police departments. 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 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, she said.

“Any time you talk about sovereignty, there’s going to be trust issues,” said Detective Vasey, who also compared attitudes of some on reservation with those in small towns.

In Alaska, some tribal villages have refused to turn over offenders to state police, said Meg Peters, a spokeswoman for the Alaska State Troopers.

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 that the tribe declared a state of emergency and turned 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 formed a task force to pursue 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. Wisconsin’s version brought all eight tribal police agencies to the table.

The Justice Department won $461,000 in state and federal grants in 2007 and told Mr. Sturdivant to make it happen. The tall, bass-voiced agent had helped some of the tribes and earned tribal police chiefs’ respect.

“You have to treat [tribal officers] like equals,” Mr. Sturdivant said. “You have to check your attitude and ego at the door.”

There were caveats, too.

The Menominee Tribal Legislature, for example, agreed to join if other members understood that 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. They finally realized they were overwhelmed. “Things were going to get worse before they got better,” he 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.

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.”

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