BIA Cops: Little funding for big problems
Facebook Twitter Email
MAY 2, 2001

Kelmar One Feather was alone when he was called to duty on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, responding to a report of two men driving while drunk.

A 18-year veteran of the Oglala Lakota police force, Officer One Feather responded like any officer would and picked the two men up. But before he could reach the reservation's detention facility, he lost control of his vehicle and it overturned.

No one can say with certainty what happened on July 1, 2000. One of his men died in the accident. The other survived, yet was too intoxicated to recall what happened, falling in and out of sleep during the ride.

But the accident could have been prevented, say fellow law enforcement authorities. As is often the case throughout Indian Country, One Feather didn't transport the men in a standard police car but in a sports utility vehicle with no security screen, no security features, and no assurances that his detainees didn't interfere with the father of three and cause the tragic accident.

Officer One Feather died.

One Feather tomorrow joins an ever-growing list of Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal police officers who have died while on duty. At a special ceremony in New Mexico, One Feather's name will be added to the Indian Country Law Enforcement Officer's Memorial, a tribute to the 78 cops whose deaths are largely the result of underfunded, understaffed, and overworked Indian police forces throughout the country.

Men like White Mountain Apache Officer Tenny Gatewood, Jr., killed in 1999 while responding to a burglary call on a remote part of the Arizona reservation. Women like Officer Esther Todacheene, who died in 1998 while on duty serving the Navajo Nation.

Despite numerous Department of Justice reports pointing out the dire crime, violence, and jail problems that exist in Indian Country, funding for law enforcement remains low. In 2001, just $157 million was allocated for all of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' police programs while officials say at least $500 million is needed.

And while there are only about 2600 officer serving tribes, there should be, at minimum, 4300 men and women on the job, say officials. The rural and isolate characteristics of many large reservations pose special requirements on police forces yet most don't have the funding to fulfill the need.

Advances made during the Clinton years have helped Indian Country efforts. In 1998, the President directed then Attorney General Janet Reno and then Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt to study Indian law enforcement conditions.

The immediate result was an increase in funding. After more than 20 years of no significant movement, the BIA's law enforcement budget has been increased by $49 million since the study's release.

Other improvements aimed at tribes include the Community Oriented Police Services program (COPS). The program, however, is in danger of being cut by the Bush administration just as American Indian men and women are the victims of crime at more than twice the rate of the rest of the country.

In spite of all the dangers, young men and women are seeking to join BIA and tribal police forces. But they also continue to die. So far this year, Indian Country has seen the death of 22-year-old Officer Creighton Spencer.

Working on average 55 hours a week, Spencer on March 25 lost control of his vehicle while responding to a call in eastern Nevada, where he serves Indian communities as many as 400 miles apart.

Spencer's name will be added to the memorial next year.

Relevant Links:
Law Enforcement Services, Bureau of Indian Affairs -
Bureau of Justice Statistics, Department of Justice -

Related Stories:
Ashcroft promises violence funding (4/6)
DOJ: Violent crime plagues Indian Country (3/19)
Fiscal Year 2002: The Budget Overview (3/1)
Grants awarded to combat domestic violence (12/05)
Violence act signed into law (10/30)
Violence against women act renewed (10/12)
House renews violence act (09/27)
Clinton wants violence act renewed (9/26)
Violence in Indian Country (6/15)