Criminal Justice News

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Journey Through Indian Country, part 2

Part 2: Making an Impact on the Reservation

Snow swirled in New Mexico’s high plains as Special Agent Mac McCaskill slowed his vehicle at the bottom of a hill on the Tohajiilee Reservation. He engaged the four-wheel drive before continuing slowly up the steep, bumpy track on his way to deliver a subpoena in a violent assault case.

McCaskill had driven an hour from Albuquerque on this 20-degree morning—typical of the distances that often separate agents from their cases in Indian Country—and now he was knocking on the door of a small wooden structure with one boarded-up window. On the hillside just beyond the dwelling sat a rusted trailer and an outhouse. A young woman holding an infant opened the door and told McCaskill the man he was looking for would be back later.

“On the reservation you can’t just call someone because many people don’t have a phone,” McCaskill said, explaining the challenges of investigating crimes in Indian Country. “Sometimes the best way to get anything done is to knock on doors.”

In the process of knocking on doors and talking to people, McCaskill and other agents working in Indian Country become not just law enforcement officers but advocates for justice and sometimes even role models. (See sidebar.)

A New Mexico native, McCaskill said his eyes were “wide open” when he took an assignment in Indian Country. “Still, it’s difficult to comprehend the conditions on the reservations and the kinds of crime we see here,” he explained. “People are living in really difficult circumstances.”

In Tohajiilee, a satellite reservation that is part of the Navajo Nation, many homes lack electricity and running water, and social ills such as alcoholism are rampant. These issues, along with the fact that there are only a handful of tribal police officers assigned to patrol a sprawling area of more than 120 square miles, contribute to a serious crime problem.

“There are terrible crimes that happen on the reservations that go virtually unnoticed by the world outside,” McCaskill said. “If they happened anywhere else, in Denver or in Dallas, it would be front-page news for a week.”

As a result, he said, “we are serving a community that isn’t used to getting much service.” Perhaps it’s not surprising then that women beaten by boyfriends or spouses, or children sexually assaulted by family members may believe a call to authorities will do little to help them.

McCaskill works hard to change that perception. He patiently explained to the young mother the importance of serving the subpoena—so that the witness will testify, which could help make sure the violent offender stays in jail and no longer poses a threat to the community.

“Our caseloads may be 75 percent sexual assaults against children,” McCaskill said later. “People ask me if it’s difficult emotionally to work these cases, and my answer is always, ‘How can you not work them?’ These are cases where on a very fundamental level you are able to make a difference in a victim’s life by taking an abuser out of the family. When I help a victim and get to know the family,” he added, “I may be one of the few positive influences that they’ve ever seen from outside the reservation.”

Stopping that cycle of violence on the reservation is “extremely rewarding,” McCaskill said. “We are helping people here.”

Teachers and Mentors
Paul Brusuelas, a tribal prosecutor for the Mescalero Apache Tribe in southern New Mexico, remembers when he was growing up on the reservation and very few young people had respect for law enforcement.

Today, things are different. “FBI agents, Assistant U.S. Attorneys, and investigators from the Bureau of Indian Affairs actually go into the schools and talk to the kids,” he said. “They talk to young adults and young parents and try to persuade them to go in the right direction.”

“I would say 98 percent of our crime here is fueled by alcohol,” Brusuelas said.

“The agents and officers give a lot of education to the youth on alcohol, drugs, and gang activity—just a lot of positive influence. The kids all know the officers by their names now. Going down the road you’ll see the little kids waving their hands at the officers.”

“The FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Mescalero tribal officers and prosecutors work extremely well together,” he added. “We all keep in contact on a daily basis, and we all communicate well. Without the presence of the federal agencies here,” he said, “I think Mescalero would be in a world of hurt.

Next: Murder on the Zuni reservation.

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