Norton listens to tribal police tragedies
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MAY 3, 2001

Secretary of Interior Gale Norton on Wednesday heard some of the most compelling voices in Indian Country as caller after caller to a nationally broadcast radio program told stories of underfunded, understaffed, overworked, and overstressed tribal police officers who put their lives on the line every time they go to work.

"Law enforcement is pretty scary on the reservation here in New Mexico," said an anonymous officer serving a Pueblo in the northern part of the state. Most of the time, he said, "you'll be the only one patrolling" an entire reservation.

"I'm a tribal police officer for Standing Rock [reservation in North and South Dakota] and I've heard a lot of talk about reservations being short handed," said Leigh. "That's what ours is right now."

But perhaps the most convincing words came from family members of two recently deceased police officers. The sister-in-law of Officer Tenny Gatewood, Jr. said the White Mountain Apache Tribe suffered greatly when he was killed in 1999 while responding to a burglary call on a remote part of the Arizona reservation.

"When this happened -- because it was the first time -- it hit the community tremendously," said Dorene. "It affected everybody."

A cousin of Kelmar One Feather, an Oglala Lakota officer killed last year while transporting two detainees on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, said his death "has really really affected all of us."

"It is a very severe problem here on the Pine Ridge Reservation: law enforcement are not funded to their full potential, police officers are overworked over stressed, they're patrolling alone at night," said Filomene, adding that Kelmar's death was "absolutely unnecessary."

Norton, considered the first Interior Secretary to ever appear on Native America Calling, responded to the stories with sympathy. "Its very saddening to hear the situation the prior caller was talking about," said Norton of Gatewood's death.

She said that the stories like those of Officer Creighton Spencer, who died in March, were a "real tribute to the kind of people who are just at the core of law enforcement." Working an average of 55 hours a week serving Eastern Nevada, Spencer was killed when his car overturned.

"It was a very, very tragic situation," said Norton, who personally telephoned Spencer's widow. Spencer's father, Jack Spencer, died in 1998 under the same conditions while serving Western Nevada.

While Norton recognized the problems facing Indian Country police forces, she said her priority at this point in time is education of Indian youth. But she said keeping communities safe has always been one of her top priorities since her days as Colorado's Attorney General.

Norton's fiscal year 2002 budget proposes about $160 million for law enforcement funding at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. However, acting director of the BIA Law Enforcement Program Walt Lamar pointed out that Indian Country needs at least $500 million to meet acceptable minimum standards. In addition, at least 4,300 officers are needed while there are just about 2,600 now, he said.

Callers emotionally added their pleas for extra funding.

"The federal government passed the Major Crimes Act because they felt . . . justice couldn't be left to the Indians because of their primitive ways," said Gatewood's sister-in-law. "Yet now its the federal government that keeps us primitive because they're not giving us the funding that we need . . . and [by] putting the lives of Indian people . . . at risk every single day."

Kelmar One Feather's name today will be added to the Indian Country Law Enforcement Officer's Memorial, a tribute an ever-growing list of tribal police officers who have died on the job. Family members, a Lakota drum group, and a Lakota spiritual elder will be on hand for One Feather's ceremony.

The memorial is located in Artesia, New Mexico, the home of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and the Indian Police Academy.

Ed. Note: Callers' names are spelled here phonetically.

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

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