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Reporters Detail The Rise And Fall Of The Crow Nation Police Department

A row of police vehicles, purchased with CARES Act funding, sits gathering tumbleweeds and flat tires in the parking lot of administrative offices in Crow Agency on March 12, 2021.
Olivia Swant-Johnson
UM School of Journalism
A row of police vehicles, purchased with CARES Act funding, sits gathering tumbleweeds and flat tires in the parking lot of administrative offices in Crow Agency on March 12, 2021.

Reporters Detail The Rise And Fall Of The Crow Nation Police Department

Last June, the Crow Nation created a new police department. Then, five months later, that department shut down with little notice as to why.MTPR’s Freddy Monares spoke to Nikki Zambon and Olivia Swant-Johnson, the pair who reported the story for the Montana Native News Honors Project at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism.

Freddy Monares With the help of millions of dollars in federal aid during the pandemic, the tribe bought a fleet of new patrol cars, an operations building and detaining units. Here to break it all down for us is Olivia and Nikki - thanks for joining us today. Nikki Zambon Thanks for having us.

Olivia Swant-Johnson Yeah, thank you. 

Freddy The CARES Act is COVID-19 economic relief money appropriated through Congress. You reported that the tribe got $27 million through that program.

It's unknown how all of it was spent, but what did you learn about how that was spent to build the police force? 

Olivia We know that the Crow tribe brought roughly 30 vehicles to erect the police department. There was also shipping containers that were purchased to be used for holding cells for people when they were arrested. The last big purchase was the Garryowen museum, which was purchased to be the headquarters of the police department.

And the new chairman, Frank White Clay, told us that he estimated that about $2.5 million was spent on the Garryowen museum and it was purchased without an appraisal, but he thought that it was probably worth about $200,000.

Freddy What reason did the chairman at the time give for erecting a police force?

Olivia AJ Not Afraid Jr. issued a statement - I think the first statement was the Crow tribe no longer wishes to lead the nation in missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Freddy Change in administration came during this. What were the politics at play here?

Olivia Both administrations saw law enforcement as one of the highest priorities on Crow reservation.

Because you had the previous administration - the Not Afraid administration - who initially erected the Crow Tribal Police. And his take was that the U.S. government, up until that point, had not done a good job of fulfilling their agreement to protect Crow people. His take was that we're a sovereign people and you gave us this money, and now we get to do what we want with it.

Whereas the White Clay administration - White Clay said that while we are a sovereign people, we're still dependent on the U.S. government and we still have to follow their red tape and check off all their boxes.

That was where the breakdown really seemed to come into play.

Freddy Yes. You got new cars, a building, some shipping containers: How did the community respond to this?

Nikki So they have been trying for a couple of years to create a police force but that process is a little tricky.

So it's called a 638 contract, and it's basically self-determination. And so you have to get approved from the BIA, and then the BIA then has to kind of help you - kind of hold their hand along the way to get them to where they need to be.

Freddy And BIA is the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is that right? 

Nikki Yeah, that's right.

And so then all of a sudden after, you know, COVID hits and the CARES Act funds were allocated - very shortly after they received the funds, the police force was erected. People weren't prepared, and I don't think that they realized it was going to happen.

A lot of the officers that were hired were non-Native so they were from off the reservation. And that was tricky for some people, I think, because they kind of said, like, “They don't know tribal law. They're just carrying around their guns and playing cops and they’ve kind of just got in the way.”

So I think people were skeptical of it. 

Freddy And why were they skeptical? 

Olivia There was a lot of question as to whether or not they had the jurisdiction, and whether or not it was legal for them to be erected using the CARES funding. And a lot of people thought that that money would have been put to better use being used for individual stimulus checks and for incident command.

Nikki Yeah, so Incident Command was another department that was erected using solely CARES funds, and it was basically built up of tribal community members. They were kind of boots on the ground to help mitigate this pandemic.

Olivia Transparency was another big word that we heard often. It was that it wasn't necessarily that they had a problem with what it was used for, it was that they didn't have a clear outline of how it had been used.

Freddy This seems like such a huge effort after so many years to put together. What do we know about why it failed?

Nikki We don't really. I mean, we don't really know why it failed.

It was erected and then disbanded after five short months. It was hard for the community to kind of swallow that pill and see all these purchases that essentially went away. So, like, we don't really know why it shut down - but we've been told that one, they weren't ever given the go ahead for the 638 contract.

So there are all these questions that are completely unanswered and at the end of the day, we just keep hearing from people. Like if there are investigations, you know, all these things - maybe you'll never know the answer. And if you do get it, it might be five years down the road.

Freddy What's the state of law enforcement on the Crow Nation now?

Olivia Currently, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is in charge of public safety and law enforcement for the Crow tribe. They are in the process of still going through the 638 self-determination but instead of starting with their main police department, they're going to start by taking over their own fish and wildlife department.

And so the cars and everything that were purchased for that will still be used for Fish and Wildlife. And then once they develop that rapport and have that department under control, they'll be able to start expanding into other areas of public safety and law enforcement.

Freddy Thanks for sharing your reporting with us Olivia and Nikki.

Nikki Thanks for having us.

Olivia Yeah, thank you.

Find the full story here.
Copyright 2021 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Freddy Monares
Freddy Monares is a reporter and Morning Edition host at Montana Public Radio. He previously worked for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, covered the 2017 Legislature for UM Legislative News Service and interned with the station as a student. He graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism in 2017.