How the Feds Finally Reduced Crime on Indian Reservations

The feds set a goal of reducing crime on tribal reservations by 5 percent. Here’s how they brought it down by more than 700 percent.
February 2014
Sources: Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Justice; Image: Flickr/Ken Lund
Donald F. Kettl
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin

For residents of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which stretches across a large swath of the central Dakotas, crime was an enormous problem a few years back. By mid-2008, violence on the 3,500-square-mile reservation was six times the national average. Residents had so little confidence in the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to do anything about it that they often didn’t even bother to report crimes.

Arnold Schott, both a mayor and coroner on the reservation, said at the time, “I can look out my door [and see] our little kids, 8, 9, 10 or younger” being lured into the drug trade. The director of the tribal health administration, Randy Bear Ribs, agreed that the crime problem was linked to drug and alcohol abuse. The reservation’s chairman, Ron His Horse Is Thunder, added that soaring crime was fueling “a sense of hopelessness.”

But the BIA didn’t have any money to help, and they knew just throwing money at the problem wouldn’t solve it anyway. So along with the Department of Interior, the BIA hatched a plan to take advantage of the Obama administration’s management agenda, which challenged federal leaders to set high priority performance goals and seek big impacts. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is leading the management program, required agencies not only to define goals but to develop metrics to gauge success—and hopefully produce real breakthroughs.

To get started, the Department of Interior focused on reducing violent crime on four reservations: the Sioux Standing Rock Reservation, the Chippewa-Cree Tribe’s Rocky Boy’s Reservation in Montana, the Mescalero Apache Tribe’s Reservation in New Mexico, and the Shoshone and Arapahoe Tribes’ Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Given the big run-up in crime, any reduction looked like a very heavy lift, so the Interior initially set a very low crime-reduction target. OMB countered that if this goal really was a high priority, then the agency ought to aim for a significant cut. As a result, the Interior agreed to shoot for a 5 percent reduction in violent crime in 2010 and 2011.

Bending the crime curve was a hard enough problem. Making the job even tougher was the notorious short-staffing of the BIA’s teams. Despite those huge hurdles, the BIA busted past its 5 percent target. In fact, the four reservations achieved an astounding 35 percent cut in crime. The Mescalero Reservation saw a whopping 68 percent reduction. Crime in Standing Rock dropped 27 percent; in Rocky Boy, the drop was 40 percent. Originally, the story wasn’t as good in Wind River. Trust in the system was so bad that many citizens just didn’t bother to report many crimes. The reservation was also the most under-policed of the four and it took longer to gear up. But in the second year, after the program began to hit its stride, crime dropped 30 percent.

So how did they do it? This would be a huge story for any government program. But given the fed’s long-troubled relations with Native American tribes, it’s off the charts. Part of the improvement came from strategic investment—not to saturate the streets with cops but simply to bring staffing levels up to the national averages. (It’s a sign of the nation’s long-term neglect of the tribes that simply hitting the staffing norms can bring such a huge return.)

The central part of the story, however, was the careful work of Charles Addington, the BIA’s associate director for field operations, whose crime-fighting strategy made him a finalist for a Partnership for Public Service Sammie award—what one writer called “the Oscars for federal employees.” When Addington first took up the project, he knew he needed a crime statistics baseline. But the data were so bad that he had to begin by putting experts to work hand counting three years’ worth of crime reports. He then used these data collections to compare where crime fighters were deployed and where crimes were happening. He adopted predictive-policing methods— which rely on using advanced technological tools and data analysis to take proactive measures to “preempt” crime—to position cops in advance where crime was likely to occur.

As BIA Assistant Director Jason Thompson told the Partnership for Public Service, “Charlie analyzed data to determine, based on time of day, location and other intelligence information, where the crime was going to be and how he could be on the preventive side, stopping it before it happened, rather than the reactive side where officers would be responding to calls.” He worked closely with local communities to bring in a wide range of local support services to root out the causes of crime. And perhaps most important, he worked hard with tribal leaders to break down the longstanding barriers of distrust—and to make the tribal police an integrated team with BIA’s crime fighters.

A bit more money unquestionably helped. But the real innovation here was tying the money to performance data, using the data to drive real-time policing decisions and driving the system to rebuild frayed relationships. Better numbers built stronger partnerships and helped put a dent in one of the nation’s nastiest problems, in ways neither the tribes nor the BIA imagined possible.