Residents throughout Big Horn County are concerned about the crime plaguing local communities, and dozens of residents met Tuesday at the Hardin Middle School to ask county and tribal officials what they are doing to stop crime.
"The individuals up here all recognize there is a problem. That's what we're up here to try to fix,” said Crow Tribe representative Tearill Bracken.
Representatives from the Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribes were in attendance, as well as the mayors of Lodge Grass and Hardin, along with Big Horn County deputies and county attorney.
The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs was absent from the meeting, and its absence didn’t sit well with attendees.
“That’s part of the problem, them not showing up,” one audience member yelled as the moderator was noting the BIA’s absence.
Discussions quickly moved to how law enforcement on the Crow reservation, which encompasses a large portion of Big Horn County, currently operates.
Crow representatives told the crowd that the BIA is the only law enforcement agency operating within Crow land. But that could be set to change. Crow Tribe Consultant Jim Norris said law enforcement duties have been in the process of being transferred to the tribe.
“We are in phase one of law enforcement services transferring to the Crow tribe,” Norris said.
“I think it’s fair to say that BIA has been working with a severe shortage of officers,” said Bracken. “Considering the Crow Reservation is, I believe, the fourth largest reservation in the country, five officers total is pretty difficult to provide adequate service for a reservation that size.”
Capt. Mike Fuss of the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office said much the same. He only has two deputies patrolling the 5,000 acres of the county at any time. Many of the calls the deputies are responding to take place in Hardin, the most populated city in the county. Fuss said sometimes the Hardin calls take deputies away from the rural parts of the county.
“Out in the county, we try to get out there as much as we possibly can. And in some instances, I am short on staff,” Fuss said.
The Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office has been exploring establishing a civilian deputy force to help with calls.
Hardin Mayor Joe Purcell said the city of Hardin has been in talks in the last months about establishing its own police agency.
One solution to cut crime, is possibly cross deputization. Essentially, this would be a local agreement allowing federal officers jurisdiction in local cases and vice versa.
Hardin City Attorney Jordan Knudsen was formerly the deputy county attorney in Roosevelt County, which contains the Fort Peck reservation. He thinks cross deputization is a great idea.
“Half of Roosevelt County has the Fort Peck Reservation, which had the first cross deputization agreements in the nation,” Knudsen said. “And it worked great. Under that agreement, someone from the Wolf Point Police Department could arrest someone who is a tribal member or someone that is not and they cited them into the appropriate jurisdiction.”
Spokespeople for Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, and Congressman Greg Gianforte were also at the meeting. A question was directed to them asking what the federal government is doing to help cut crime in Big Horn County.
Tester’s spokesperson mentioned Savanna’s Act, a law that would shorten the time it would take to hire officers to the BIA. Currently it takes about one year to bring on BIA officer onto the street.
That bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate and had a hearing this summer.
A man who said he’d lived in Hardin for 40 years said he’s heard this discussion before and it hasn’t produced positive results.
"The same conversation has been happening for 40 years. One solution is the people have to work together. They have to want it to change,” he said.
All leaders in attendance agreed that while the two-hour meeting won’t fix the crime in Big Horn County, it is a step in the right direction to reduce crime.