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Chief BIA lawman looks back

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - One quality helped Theodore Quasula through 26 years of work in BIA law enforcement - compassion.

"You've got to have compassion to do the job right," he says.

Quasula will retire in November after more than a quarter century in federal service, the last 10 as director of the BIA's Office of Law Enforcement Services, headquartered here.

Looking back over his career, he cited administrative achievements, - greater professionalism, more funding - but he also recalled the anguish of dealing with some of Indian country's worst problems.

"Probably the most heartbreaking is when you have a child victim particularly when you have sex abuse, and particularly when it's involving incest. So many times the family knows about it.

"I've seen so much of that."

The emotional traumas don't cease as one climbs the ladder, he added. "One of the most painful things is having to deal with a police officer killed in the line of duty. We have a memorial on the campus of the Indian Police Academy with 77 names on it. Some were real friends.

"But we in law enforcement understand that's part of the job."

Quasula, a member of the Hualapai Tribe, grew up on Indian lands in Arizona owned by his grandparents. He says they taught him the importance of language, culture and tradition. Thanks to the pride instilled in him by his grandmother, he said, he attended Northern Arizona University and graduated with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.

After entering law enforcement with the Flagstaff (Ariz.) Police Department, he joined the BIA in 1974 as a criminal investigator. A promotion took him to Phoenix where, as area manager, he used his nights and weekends to earn a master's degree.

Catching the eye of his supervisors, he was selected for year-long management training in Washington, D.C. He drew assignments in the offices of former Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini and former Rep. Morris Udall.

The experience, he says, served him well throughout his career, especially after he was appointed head of BIA law enforcement in 1990.

Quasula summed up the vision gained from this experience in one word - professionalism.

People who worked with him echo the word.

"He's an extremely professional individual," said Steve Wiley, special agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles Division. During a tour in Washington as chief of the FBI's Violent Crimes - Major Offenders office, Wiley worked closely with Quasula on Indian country cases.

"As an officer who worked his way up through the ranks, he brought a lot to the table," Wiley said. "He always had good advice to offer and people always asked him his advice."

In taking over BIA law enforcement, Quasula said he knew the office suffered from fragmented lines of authority. Then as now, it enforced federal law throughout Indian country and provided public safety for tribes that decided not to set up their own police forces.

But in a century-old pattern, its officers reported to BIA superintendents and area directors without law enforcement backgrounds. Quasula said he started a long push to set up a professional chain of command.

Congress gave him a hand in 1990 by passing the Indian Law Enforcement Reform Act but, he said it took "years of strenuous advocacy" to restructure the office. He said he finally reached his goal in 1998.

While working on organization, he emphasized higher standards for his officers, he said. "When I first started, everybody was pretty much on their own. There were no written guidelines. There was no leadership to gauge anything by."

He said he set up an internal affairs inspection and evaluation unit to keep Indian country police work up to snuff. He also applied strict standards to recruitment, including "stringent background checks." And he made continuing training a must for his staff - "training is a condition of employment.

"The BIA had a training program going back to the late '60s, but it was never a top priority," he said.

"We've changed that."

A graduate of the FBI's National Academy, Quasula says one of his proudest legacies is the Indian Police Academy in Artesia, N.M. "The Academy and its training programs are the backbone for our law enforcement."

But for most of his tenure, Quasula had to struggle with budget cuts. "We were worrying about who we'd have to lay off. The low level of funding was just terrible. We were going backward."

He said things turned around three years ago, thanks in part to support from Attorney General Janet Reno.

Wiley noted that Quasula was a frequent visitor to Washington at the time as a member of the Attorney General's Indian Country Initiative. He also testified in Congress for more money, Wiley said.

Quasula's budget has increased by $40 million and the Department of Justice has given tribes $180 million in law enforcement grants.

Quasula is cautious about the future funding, however.

"The BIA budget increase has been very helpful but is nowhere near what is needed, and the Justice grants have a three-year life. Then what?" he asked.

He warned that in spite of plunging crime rates elsewhere, violent crime, especially that committed by young people, is sharply rising in Indian country and for the majority of tribes with limited resources, the future looks bleak.

"While many say economic development is the key to the future, I would add that without adequate criminal justice systems, economic development will not prosper."

He's more optimistic about the rising professionalism of the office he leaves behind.

"The train has left the station," he said. "We're going to grow from here."

Quasula plans to relax with his family over the holidays and then he wants to go back to work full time. His future plans aren't set, but when they are, "I'll go full steam, 90 miles an hour."