An independent investigation of the Nez Perce Tribal Police Department has found no merit for a former officer’s allegations of religious discrimination.
The six-week investigation, completed in April, was triggered by former officer Lowicha Lake Falls-Rock’s claims that he was fired for attending sweat lodges and other traditional ceremonies. Falls-Rock, a member of California’s Pit River Tribe, was hired as a police officer in August 2014 and terminated at the end of the year.
He claims he was hired because of his involvement in the Native American Church—and later fired for the same beliefs.
“I was attempting to change things,” he said. ��I had a good rapport with the community and they knew who I was and where I came from. Because I am traditional, the people in the community had a profound respect for me and how I carried myself.”
Falls-Rock calls his termination a “religious rights infringement,” and claims his field training officer gave him an ultimatum: if he didn’t stop going to sweat ceremonies, he would lose his job. When he told a supervisor about the conversation, he was abruptly fired, he said.
The Nez Perce Tribe and its police department took the allegations seriously and hired an independent investigator from the Kalispel Tribal Police Department. After interviewing 16 people, including law enforcement officers, tribal leaders and community members, Sgt. Andrew Garry found no evidence of religious discrimination.
“In fact, the evidence showed the Nez Perce Tribal Police Department holds the religious and ceremonial beliefs of the tribe it serves in high regard, providing every opportunity for its officers to practice their religions,” Garry wrote in his report. He also found that the department acted in good faith when it terminated Falls-Rock.
During an interview with ICTMN, Garry said he found no evidence of racism or discrimination of any kind.
“If anything, I was pretty impressed with the amount of respect in the department and the level of cultural sensitivity,” he said. “During my investigation, I found that the leadership of the department has the tribe’s best interests at heart, from simple issues to the complex issues.”
The 1,200-square-mile Nez Perce Indian Reservation in north central Idaho presents complex jurisdictional issues for the tribal police department, Chief David Rogers said. An allotment tribe, the original boundaries defined by the 1863 treaty were whittled down when the Dawes Act opened the area to non-Native settlement.
The result is a checkerboard area with tribal lands scattered across five counties, muddied police jurisdictions and a long history of strained relationships, said Rogers, a 40-year veteran of law enforcement.
“People like myself have spent our entire careers trying to get tribal law enforcement to the point where we’re equal or better than surrounding departments,” he said. “We’ve fought a long, hard battle to be the department we are.”
The Nez Perce Tribal Police Department boasts a diverse staff representing at least half a dozen tribes. Of the 26 staff members, 16 are Native, Rogers said. Seven of the eight command staff members are Native.
Rogers debunked Falls-Rock’s claims that he was hired or fired because of religious beliefs. Rather, he was hired after passing initial tests and fired because of low scores, poor attendance and behavior that endangered the lives of fellow officers or civilians—including texting on the job.
Field training officers did not reprimand Falls-Rock for attending sweat ceremonies, but rather they extended a general caution that he be careful who he sweated with, Rogers said.
“It puts him in a predicament if there are people there with warrants,” Rogers said. “Lowicha was confusing police work with social work. You can’t set yourself up in a situation where there is a conflict of interest.”
Because Falls-Rock was still in his probationary period, the department had the right to terminate him without warning, Rogers said. The tribe hired an independent investigator only after Falls-Rock alleged religious discrimination.
The accusations and subsequent publicity damaged the police department’s reputation, said Bill Picard, vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe. The department has spent half a century forging relationships with local, county and state governments.
“This really gave us a black eye,” he said. “We’re really working on our police department, and we’re really proud of how things are going. It’s a complicated working relationship with all these entities, but we’re getting better.”
As the second-largest employer in the region, the tribe takes very seriously any accusations of discrimination, Picard said.
“Statements like what Falls-Rock said do damage to law enforcement across Indian Country,” he said. “I’m glad we can say his allegations were unfounded.”