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Profile: Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Police

Author: John Christopher Fine

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-02-27
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Photos by Myriam Moran

“If you go east, Blackfoot is 80 miles. Bridger is 90 miles southwest. The reservation is 3.9 million square miles. We cover a lot of area,” Lieutenant Chad Olson said. He described distances from the Walter Miner Law Enforcement Center in Eagle Butte, South Dakota.

This vast area, located about 90 miles west of Pierre, South Dakota’s capitol, has a population of some 12,000 people, native and non-native. The reservation is home to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

Law Enforcement, emergency response and dispatch within the reservation is the responsibility of tribal police. The force consists of a chief of police, one lieutenant, four sergeants, twelve police officers and five dispatchers. Five highways go through the reservation patrolled by three Indian Highway Safety Officers included in force numbers above.

“Sometimes an officer has to go to Blackfoot then drive all the way to Bridger. Bridger is fully within our jurisdiction and has a population of 30 people. There are 17 communities within our jurisdiction. We were down to six officers to patrol the whole reservation, now we have thirteen,” Lieutenant Olson explained from Tribal Police Headquarters.

Police Officer Mona Cudmore II in Tribal Police car.

“We had five thousand more calls than the Rapid City, South Dakota Police Department, more than a large city in Minneapolis. We average 13,500 calls per year. Dispatching here is a very tough job. You are on by yourself. If there is a major incident we get many calls while trying to dispatch. We may have to call someone in that is off duty to help or get the administrative officer or police secretary. Dispatchers are employed by the police department and dispatch police, fire and ambulance,” Lieutenant Olson said. He is in charge of dispatch.

“We have a lot of dead space out here,” the Lieutenant explained.  “The Department provides radios. It does not pay for mobile phones although most officers have them. If someone does not call in within 25 minutes we look into it. We take care of each other pretty well here. It’s not like a big city where they can put two officers in a car. Our radios are fixed in the patrol units and we have mobile radios. We’re the only department in South Dakota that is still under the analog system. Dispatch has a digital radio and can communicate with state agencies,” he explained.

Above: Lieutenant Chad Olson and Detective Larry LeBeau standing by a memorial quilt of a police officer who died.

“If we need the Department of Transportation to help with a highway spill, dispatch can call them. Even on search and rescue, we had 16 agencies and none of us could communicate out there. It was a big problem. We made out and the bodies were found. We have two towers, but not the funding to buy radios,” Lieutenant Olson added.

Born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Lieutenant Olson moved to White Horse. He went to high school in Eagle Butte. As a student he had an hour-forty minute school bus ride to school every day. He stayed in a dormitory in winter months during the school week. In summer he waited for the bus at 6:30 AM and returned home at 5 PM. After high school Olson joined the U.S. Army and was assigned to tanks. When he left the army, he joined the police force and has been with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Police for the last 18 years. He served as a Patrol Officer then became a District Officer in the communities to cut down driving distances. He was promoted to Sergeant in 1995, to Lieutenant in 2006. He is second in command in the department.

“We try to hire tribal members. We must follow federal guidelines. We can’t put uncertified police officers on the street any more. Hiring certified police officers is our first priority. Enrolled tribal members on our force include three from Pine Ridge Reservation, three non-Indians, our Chief of Police Burton In The Woods is from Standing Rock Reservation, the rest are from Eagle Butte area,” Olson explained.

Starting salary for Police Officers is $12.34 per hour. To qualify officers must have a high school diploma or GED, be able to pass physical and drug screening tests. Those picked by the department are sent to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, the Indian Police Training Academy, in Artesia, NM for a 16-week certification course.

It is helpful if officers speak the Lakota language. “We have strong Lakota language here. The communities work real well with the police department. Everybody understands English but some elders can’t put English into words. We have officers here that speak Lakota or we get someone in the community,” the Lieutenant said.

While the dispatch center used to be housed in the modern Law Enforcement Center building that is built to withstand high winds, it was moved out. “We plan to bring dispatch back to this building. It is now in a metal building that also houses the ambulance. If a tornado goes through there it is going to take out our communications center,” Olson explained.

Calls to 9-1-1 made anywhere on the reservation come into the communications center. Some calls from distant communities, like Blackfoot, may be received by Mobridge. The sheriff will call tribal police dispatch and relay the call. A dispatcher is always on duty in the communications center. Each shift has a uniformed sergeant and patrol officers are assigned as the shift requires.

Right: Dispacher Jessica LeBeau and Lieutenant Chad Olson
during an emergency call.

Jurisdiction is complicated on Indian reservations. Major crimes all fall under federal jurisdiction and are investigated by the FBI.

“We secure the scene and wait for them to come up from the FBI office in Pierre, 90 miles away. When the original law was passed in 1876, there were seven major crimes covered by federal jurisdiction. Now there are 26, including all sex crimes, homicides, burglaries, robberies, weapons, assaulting law enforcement officers. These crimes are handled by the Federal Courts in Pierre. We have sole civil jurisdiction over everybody on the reservation regardless of race. We have criminal jurisdiction only over native Americans. Non-native Americans, we call the FBI to come up and investigate if they are felonies. If we stop a car and the non-native driver is suspected of DUI, we call the sheriff. There are two state counties within the reservation, Dewey and Zeibach. If it is a crime against a native American by a non-native we call the FBI. We have two detectives that do most crime scene investigation. If it’s a federal crime then the FBI takes over. If it involves a native American we can go all over the reservation. If a non-native the sheriff goes in and we back him up. It works as best as it can,” the Lieutenant explained.

DUI cases and misdemeanors are adjudicated in Tribal Court housed in the Walter Miner Law Enforcement Center. “We have an adult and juvenile detention center right here in this building. Children’s Court, Juvenile Court and Criminal court are all here. The Civil Court is separate. It’s a tough job out here. We are the lowest paid tribal police in the nation. The pay is going up. Everybody stuck it out, it’s not for the money,” the Lieutenant said.

Detective Larry LeBeau has been with the Sioux River Tribal Police Department 10 years. He previously worked eight years in Montana with the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a police officer at Fort Belknap. Detective LeBeau is from Eagle Butte where he went to high school, spending the last two years at the Flandreau Indian School in Flandreau, SD.

“It’s exciting. A lot of work we do is investigating old cases that we’ve had open more than a year. We jump around from new cases to old cases. There is always work to be done. The main role of law enforcement is to help victims of crime,” Detective LeBeau said.

“Most crimes I get involve assaults, weapons offences, sexual assaults on adults and children. We do have cases that involve male victims in the last several years. It starts with the patrol division. Any crime reported, they do the preliminary investigation. They can call us out. I’m on call along with the other detective 24/7. I’ve been on call now for two weeks. If I am called I respond to assist with the investigation. I’m between the patrol officer and U.S. Attorney. I make contacts with the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office. Whether the FBI gets involved or not we always make up a case report for the U.S. Attorney’s Office to see if it warrants prosecution,” Detective LeBeau explained.

“Drugs have always been here. In the 90s Meth came to the reservation. It caused an increase in assaults and burglaries. Violent offenders resisting arrest is not as big a problem on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation as it is in other places but it is here. We have marijuana, Meth and sale of prescription drugs. We work very well with other agencies, with the State Highway Patrol, the sheriffs. We have two counties on the reservation and we work well with both of them and have good working relationships with the FBI, U.S. Marshal, ATF, occasionally with U.S. Customs,” he added.

Detective LeBeau described the lack of funding, “The main thing is funding. The problem is similar throughout Indian Country. I’ve worked on other reservations. It’s a lack of funds. We have a lot of reservation to cover and have a total of 17 officers. I’d like to get an investigator here that would work in certain areas. An officer that would just work sex abuse cases, one that would just work drugs. We could accomplish a lot more, “ he said.

Left: Police officer Mona Cudmore II confers with Lieutenant Chad Olson.

“We do our own crime scene investigations, process our own evidence utilizing the FBI laboratory as well as the state crime lab. Eighty to 90% of the crimes out here are drug or alcohol related. If there’s money to prevent that through education or programs we’d live in a safer community. We don’t have a DARE officer any more. There are not enough programs out there to handle the problems. We have police officers assigned to schools. There is a lot going on at schools. It is said these societal problems are law enforcement problems; these are people problems. In some cases people are reluctant to come forward with certain crimes like drugs. They fear retaliation. We have our wannabe gangs. Not like inner city gangs and it is not a major problem although there are gang fights. Here kids are looking for identity, supervision. They have a conscience and don’t shoot people,” Detective LeBeau explained.

Mona Cudmore II, has been a police officer with the department since 1992. She began as a dispatcher. “They say it’s always a police officer that is first to respond, in actuality it’s the dispatcher on the phone that has to deal with the person and with background noises. People in the background may be screaming for help. A dispatcher has to have a calmness while people are screaming for help. A lot of people do not want to give their name for fear of retaliation. It’s hard to be firm with them. A dispatcher must explain that the person must provide information to be able to assist them and get help there quicker. Often people call, say they need police then hang up. You have to go in there blind. It’s a difficult decision whether to send an officer especially if the location has a reputation,” Officer Cudmore explained.

“A child called but did not know the address. I had to ask what was his auntie’s name, his sister’s name. He didn’t know a lot. Thank goodness it was warm weather. I asked the child to go outside and read the numbers on the house. There are so many communities on the reservation, the house number may not mean much. The telephone’s location does not come up in our system. Not yet. We are praying for enhanced 9-1-1,” she added.

Dispatcher Jessica LeBeau, a native of Eagle Butte, has been with the department 10 years. “Our main radio is a Motorola. We have difficult communications on the reservation. If someone is in La Plant they can hear me clearly on one channel. Whatever direction I can usually pick them up. We have state radio. Some units also have state radio and can hear us. School buses use it but they have a different channel. For the NCIC teletype, each agency has a code. We can call them or text them. We use the E.S. Johnson digital radio here but the rest are analog. Sometimes if an officer goes from the top to the bottom of a hill it is hard for the officer to give us a call,” Dispatcher LeBeau said.

“There are a lot of challenges working dispatch here on the reservation. Different things occur every day. It depends on the time of the month. We’re not busy at the end of the month but on the first of the month, after pay day, we are very busy with alcohol related situations. We help people through. We dispatch police, fire and ambulance. We use the Medical Desk Reference Manual by Powerphone to handle medical emergencies when necessary,” she added.

“Fire departments can contact our dispatcher over their digital radios. They can’t contact us directly save for the departments that have digital as well as analog radios. We put in for two grants to upgrade our radios,” Lieutenant Olson said from the dispatch center. Then he added what has been a keystone of western law enforcement from bygone eras, “We take the job knowing we’ll be out there 80 miles by ourselves.”

Every law enforcement agency has unique challenges. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Police jurisdiction is among the most rural in America. Vast areas and extreme winter weather with blizzards, blowing snow, communication dead zones, radio equipment modernization needs, lack of funding and jurisdiction barriers make the police department’s job difficult. Officers assume personal responsibility and  serve the people of this vast land with dedication and professionalism.

John Christopher Fine served as Senior Assistant District Attorney in New York County. He was the Assistant Attorney General In Charge, Organized Crime Task Force and served various state and federal law enforcement and investigative agencies. He is the author of 24 books and remains a consultant to law enforcement on national security issues and organized crime, and a frequent contributor to

See John's related story: Tribal Enforcement, DUI, & South Dakota's Initiatives To Save Lives on its Highways




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