Jackie McNeel
The Nez Perce Police Department has seen a lot of drugs come off the street thanks to the team of Canine Officer Dustin Pulley and Ruger.

Whirlwind of Change For Nez Perce Police Force

Jack McNeel

David Rogers officially returned to his Nez Perce tribal origins in October 2013, when he was hired as the tribe’s Chief of Police in Lapwai, Idaho. Twenty-two months have now passed and the improvements in staffing, vehicles, morale, programs and public acceptance have been phenomenal. ICTMN had an opportunity to talk with Chief Rogers about the changes he’s implemented.

Rogers had 41 years in criminal justice and had spent the previous 15 years running the Indian Country Training Initiative for Cops Office. During that time he visited nearly every tribal community with a police department – making for long road trips. “I think my record was 280 nights on the road in one year,” he laughed. It was time to settle down. This background plus work in such areas as law enforcement and probation made him an excellent choice for Nez Perce Chief of Police.

He came in with the idea of rebuilding the department. “When I got here morale was in the toilet and people were planning on quitting.” Since then only one officer has quit and that was due to a family medical issue. “I want these guys to be very proud of this outfit and they’re feeling that. They hear from cops in the area who admire the comradery we have, that teamwork concept, and wish they could be part of it.”

The police department had reached a low of seven personnel to cover 1,200 square miles. The BIA minimum recommendation is 20. Since Rogers arrived the number has reached 22 and two more will soon be added. One of those is a female officer presently attending the Post Academy in southern Idaho. Every officer in the department has graduated from that academy, the same as required of other agencies such as the State Police.

Chief Rogers saw the need to establish a permanent detachment at Kamiah in the eastern sector of the reservation where he felt residents were getting “cut short.” This would greatly reduce driving the river highway between headquarters in Lapwai and Kamiah and allow the community to know the officers and count on them being there. The tribe is presently exploring sites in Kamiah to place a modular police station prebuilt by a GSA contract company.

There were no detectives on the force when Rogers arrived but they now have three full-time investigators. “The guys have done a really excellent job in attacking the drug problem,” he explained. Rogers added that the reservation covers portions of five counties but the counties don’t have investigators. “Between us, State Patrol, Federal Agencies such as FBI and DEA, we’re the only ones doing drug investigations.”

He hasn’t been in charge for two years yet, and Rogers has already established a team of law enforcement he calls Rangers, added a canine unit, updated the forces mobile fleet and equipped every officer with body cameras.

The Rangers team is responsible for patrolling the really rural, remote areas of the reservation that is often missed by normal patrols – “They will be considered the rural crime prevention guys,” Rogers said. “A lot of tribal lands are vandalized, trespassed on, have timber theft and poaching all the time.” The team will also be active in the fight against meth labs and isolated drug activities.

“We’ve taken a lot of drugs off the street because of Ruger,” Rogers said when speaking of the department’s canine officer. Trained at one of the nation’s top kennels in Indiana for police work, the four-legged officer’s focus is on drugs.

As for the mobile fleet, when Rogers arrived on the reservation it consisted of run down civilian models not at all intended for police work. Rogers and the tribe worked with Ford and managed to replace the entire fleet with new Ford Interceptors, while the command staff and investigators drive Tahoes. “Before that, they drove anything that ran,” he laughed.

Since officers were required to turn their body cameras on before exiting their patrol vehicle, Rogers said he not only has numerous stories of how the equipment has helped but also how “the complaints almost disappeared” following a local newspaper article on the new equipment. “We have a lot of resources,” Rogers stated.

The change is noticeable in the community as well. According to Rogers, Kamiah’s history has been difficult between the community and tribe. But at community meeting, one resident made the comment that the tribal police were the only thing standing between them and the drug dealers. “I took that as a very big compliment,” he said.

And rightfully so with the work already done, and the goals he sees in front of the law enforcement agency. “Our goal is to be a full-service agency,” he said. One of such goals is legislation that would make tribal police officers recognized as state police officers – eliminating the need for cross-deputation.

“Not all tribal police may want that. If you opt in you agree to the authority of the Post Academy. If they need to decertify an officer they’re allowed to,” Rogers said. “Fears have been expressed by the tribe regarding sovereign immunity but frankly, if Post wants to decertify an officer that’s probably an officer I don’t want so I don’t have problems with that.”

In the same line, the Rangers will be federally commissioned officers that use federal statutes to arrest non-Natives committing crimes on tribal lands – filling a gap that Rogers said has been wide open forever.

Currently on hand for Rogers is one of the biggest in a long list of repairs within the department – community involvement and community philosophy. It’s basically a matter of building relationships and trust with the community however you do that. Instead of just being in a patrol car and writing tickets and making arrests, it’s getting out of your car, being there with the community. Trust building is the biggest thing I really strive to do,” he said.

How is he addressing that repair work? By creating a police explorer’s post on the reservation that has far exceeded expectations. “It’s been a big hit,” Rogers said. “I thought we’d be lucky to get two or three kids but over 20 applied. They have their own website on Facebook.”

The explorers not only learn about ethical law enforcement but have become a mainstay with the food bank. “The kids are great messengers” that take what they learn home and share the information with their families and friends.

Among all the positives that have been a part of the whirlwind two years of change so far, there are a few negatives that are still hanging out there for Rogers. He would like to get the State of Idaho to recognize tribal police which would alleviate such problems as stopping non-Native traffic violators but not having the legal authority to make an arrest.

“My goal is simply public safety. I consider it our job to protect everybody within the boundaries. I don’t care whether they’re tribal or non-tribal, our job is to protect lives and try to save property.”

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