Federal prosecutors meet with tribal police chiefs in Wisconsin

By Todd Richmond
Madison, Wisconsin (AP) July 2010

Federal prosecutors met with Wisconsin tribal police chiefs during July in a show of support as they struggle against gangs and drugs on their reservations.

U.S. Attorney Jim Santelle from Milwaukee and Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy O’Shea from Madison sat down with seven tribal chiefs and state agents involved in the state Justice Department’s Native American Drug and Gang Task Force at the Lac du Flamebau reservation in northern Wisconsin.

Santelle and several chiefs told The Associated Press in telephone interviews that they discussed improving tribal police departments’ ramshackle buildings, retaining tribal officers, rampant prescription drug abuse and how to get a bigger chunk of federal aid.

“They appeared to be not really fully understanding what goes on in Indian country,” said Frank Taylor, chief of the St. Croix Chippewa’s police department. “I think this was kind of an eye opener for them.”

Santelle called the trip “hugely educational.”

“It was something we have not done up until this point,” Santelle said. “I was surprised to hear about the resource issues. The needs out there are profound.”

The meeting comes as President Barack Obama’s administration mounts a new effort to combat reservation crime.

Often remote and thinly policed, American Indian reservations offer refuges for gangs and drug dealers. Little is known about exactly what happens on the reservations or how police handle criminal incidents. Data has been sparse for years.

Jurisdictional issues also have been a problem. In most states, federal prosecutors share responsibility for reservation crimes with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But in Wisconsin, all but one tribe are under state jurisdiction – and local chiefs told Santelle and O’Shea that they’re worried federal funding passes them by.

Santelle acknowledged that federal prosecutors have paid the most attention to tribes under federal jurisdiction in the past. He said he’d work to inform the tribes about potential law enforcement grants and promised to look into getting a Bureau of Indian Affairs representative to a future chiefs’ meeting.

“I do want to discuss with BIA colleagues ways we can be equitable,” he said.

He also encouraged the tribes to refer any cases that may have federal ramifications to the U.S. attorney’s offices in Milwaukee or Madison.

“Without being able to commit to anything in particular, I did say I want to work with them and be part of their world,” Santelle said.

Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Police Chief Joe Szwarek said he was encouraged.

“We sure need the help,” he said.