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Officials Look To Close Law Enforcement Loophole On The Wind River Reservation

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State lawmakers and police are looking for new solutions to a loophole that has long allowed non-Native people some degree of immunity from law enforcement on the Wind River Reservation.

The Wind River Police Department is run by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), meaning it only has the authority to arrest Native offenders, and to issue citations into tribal or federal court. But the Wind River Tribal Court only has jurisdiction over tribal citizens, and federal courts do not prosecute crimes like driving under the influence and other traffic offenses.

The current protocol for when a non-Native person is breaking the law on Wind River is for BIA police to request assistance from a state Highway Patrol agent or Fremont County Sheriff's deputy. But Wyoming Highway Patrol Col. Kebin Haller said that sometimes, that process isn't worth the hassle for any of the three departments.

"Let's say it's a speeding infraction and it's not reckless driving, it's not driving impaired, then I think it would be reasonable that if a trooper or deputy is requested and they are an hour away, it is most likely going to be that the violator will be released," Haller said.

Ten Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers have undergone a special training and certification process that allows them to issue citations and make arrests of non-Natives on the Reservation. Haller said he and Wind River Police Department Chief Tony Larvie are looking at getting some BIA police officers certified as Wyoming Peace Officers, so that they can also enforce state law on Wind River.

"Both [Chief Larvie] and I see value in proceeding down that road," Haller said. "We think that it would be beneficial to both of our agencies, as well as to the state of Wyoming."

Haller spoke about this issue at a meeting of the state legislature's Select Committee on Tribal Relations last month. In response, the Riverton Ranger reports that lawmakers discussed reviving a 2013 proposed bill that would allow the Wind River Police Department to enforce state law and arrest non-Native offenders on the Reservation.

At that meeting, the Ranger reports that State Senator Cale Case (R-Lander) said that the 2013 bill was "tripped up […] for political reasons" and that it cause "a lot of angst" in Fremont County.

Eastern Shoshone Business Council Co-Chairman Leslie Shakespeare, who is also a former officer with the Wind River Police Department, called the legislation a "common sense" measure to increase public safety on and off the Reservation.

"Crime and individuals who commit crimes don't stop at any imaginary jurisdictional border," Shakespeare said. "Being able to enforce one another's laws I think would be a big boon for being able to address the issues with our public safety, drugs, traffic and a whole host of things."

House Bill 27 enjoyed broad support from the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes as well as from state and local law enforcement in 2013 as it was making it's way through the state legislature. The bill died in the House Judiciary Committee after non-Native residents of Fremont County lobbied against it.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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