Pine Ridge police under the gun

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PINE RIDGE, S.D. - Depending on which scenario plays itself out, law enforcement on Pine Ridge could become chaotic.

The question handed over to tribal members by the tribal council is whether to keep the control of law enforcement with the tribe or hand it over to the BIA.

A crisis of major proportion has arisen on the Pine Ridge Reservation over the control of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Public Safety, which is in financial crisis because federal grants will run out in September and some people on the reservation are upset about the current state of law enforcement.

On Aug. 7 the OST Tribal Council met in special session to deal with the crisis. Council members and tribal members expressed concern that the department should operate within its financial means, however, the tribal members emotionally told the council that there were problems with enforcement and the treatment of people by some officers.

Ron Duke, OST chief of police said that there were 60 complaints in the past three months that are under consideration with Internal Affairs, which has only one officer. He said that most of the cases will be redirected to the districts for review and consideration. "They are not serious complaints, but need to be addressed."

The Tribal Council's Judiciary Committee brought a resolution to the floor that would end the control of Public Safety by the 45-member board. The vote was six for and six against. Vice President Dennis King broke the tie and voted against the measure.

"They were elected to the office and I thought it should be up to the people to decide," King said.

The people will eventually decide on public safety. What is at stake is whether or not the tribe will continue to control the department or if it will be turned over to the BIA.

BIA National Director of Public Safety, Robert Ecoffey issued a warning to the OST Public Safety Department that gave them 45 days to make changes. Ecoffey was not available for comment.

The department is now partially under the 638 contract and the rest of the officers are hired through the Circle program COPS grants.

There are 103 officers that cover 1.4 million acres of reservation, which houses more than 30,000 people. The department is controlled by the 45-member board, each of the nine districts elects five board members.

What the people will be asked to decide is not only who should control law enforcement, but what changes should be made. Will the board be reduced to nine people, will it stay the same or will the BIA control the department and under what changes?

Ron Duke, OST chief of police said the wrong decision could make law enforcement on the reservation chaotic. "This system is set up for failure.

"If the BIA takes over, the department we will be left with 27 officers," Duke said.

He said Circle program allows for 59 officers and other grants add another 14. When the grant money runs out in September the immediate reduction will be the 14 officers.

Some lay-offs have already occurred with direct cost employees, Duke said.

Duke said the BIA conducted a review of the department but had not made any recommendations. "We are waiting to see what the issues are. The department is doing what we can."

Tribal members told the council that gangs of young people prowl the reservation. One elderly person said she had lost her television set, a radio and other items when her home was broken into while she was away from home.

There are many vehicle accidents on the reservation that result in life threatening injuries and many deaths. People on the reservation have drug and alcohol problems although the reservation has alcohol and drug prohibition.

The complaints are not new, they have been recurring over the years. The police chief has been replaced occasionally and every two years the Public Safety Board members face re-election.

Neither Duke nor King could provide information about what the BIA has planned. That will take place at a special meeting with the BIA, the contract office and Public Safety.

Meanwhile a resolution that will come from the districts will determine whether or not a referendum will be held.