Skip to main content

Law officers remember their dead in Artesia

Analysis

WASHINGTON - On May 3 in Artesia, N.M., for the 16th year, the BIA conducted a memorial service for tribal, state and federal law enforcement personnel killed in the line of duty on federal Indian lands or in tribal communities.

For only the third year since the initial dedication of the Indian Country Law Enforcement Officers' Memorial, no new name will be added to it, no officer having been identified as fallen in the line of duty. BIA spokesman Nedra Darling said that fact offered at least some ground for good feeling at the solemn occasion. The names of 87 American Indian and non-Indian officers killed in the line of duty since 1852 already inscribe the memorial, and the service this year honored them all.

Carl Artman, newly installed assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the BIA's parent Interior Department, served as guest speaker at the U.S. Indian Police Academy in Artesia. ''It is appropriate that we take time each year to remember the men and women who have died while working to protect Indian country,'' he told an audience of mostly BIA and law enforcement personnel and their families. ''We honor their lives and the sacrifices they and their families have made for the good of all Americans.''

Far removed from Washington and indelibly touched with the gravitas of mortal grief among a close-knit professional community, the annual service bears no resemblance whatsoever to an appropriations lobby.

But while lawmakers in Congress continue to snub, funding-wise, Indian law enforcement, increasingly, events have forced the underfunding of law enforcement in Indian country into political consciousness. Porous national borders cross many an Indian mile, forcing tribal governments to cope with opportunistic crime in little-patrolled territories. Last year the memorial added its first name of a U.S. Border Patrol agent, slain in the line of duty on the Tohono O'odham lands, a magnet for immigrants and human traffickers by virtue of a vast border with Mexico.

The abuse of methamphetamine - meth or ''crystal meth'' in underground drug parlance - has descended on Indian country like the seven biblical plagues all at once, according to a host of accounts from close observers. Undoubted progress against it has become widely, if not everywhere, apparent. Still, opinion persists in the most knowledgeable quarters that inadequate funding of Indian law enforcement efforts makes the struggle against meth in Indian country difficult to sustain and unconscionably dangerous for lone officers in remote reservation settings.

Quite recently, on April 24, Amnesty International issued a report on sexual violence against Native women, identifying tribal jurisdictions as ''a breeding ground for sexual predators.'' One of the leading reasons it gave for a pervasion of violence so shocking that much of it beggars description was the old standby: lack of resources for tribal law enforcement.

And only the week previous, on April 18, an astonishing, standing room only meeting of the Blackfeet took place in Montana, The Associated Press reported. BIA law enforcement on the reservation came under withering, tearful, despair-filled criticism after a series of homicidal acts that went unpunished.

Against all this, the silence of grief in Artesia May 3 demonstrated the utmost measure of respect, and deserves the same. But in an interview months before the memorial service, Walter Lamar, the Blackfeet former FBI agent who is a hero to legions, spoke up for his own heroes:

''Today I get tremendously discouraged and upset and frustrated when you have reservations out there that are being patrolled by one or two officers, and when you've got an escalating crime rate. ... Why are the appropriators [in Congress] not understanding what needs to be done in Indian country? Why aren't the appropriators recognizing that there are Indian police officers that are out there patrolling 2.3 million acres, maybe alone on a shift? That they're responding to a house party with 20 or 30 people that are being unruly, and they have to respond by themselves. What's going to happen when we have an active shooter in a school like we did at Red Lake, and you're on a million-acre reservation and the only officer working is clear on the other side of the reservation? You know, what is it going to take, for God sakes ...

''I've gone out and seen situations where you have a lone police officer working on a shift by his or her self. I've talked to detention officers who have broken down in tears telling, recounting a story where they've been beaten or scared, and I mean it's absolutely a tragedy. It's a tragedy waiting to happen every day ... because we don't have enough officers.''