Tribal police struggle to communicate in outlying areasWritten by Colby Dunn
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In the farthest reaches of the Cherokee Indian Reservation, work is being done to ensure that when crime happens, the police can be there.
While most portions of the reservation are central to Cherokee itself, within easy reach of police officers and their radio systems, the slivers of tribal land that lie unattached to the main reservation are a far larger challenge to law enforcement officials.
At issue here is the police department’s radio system, which, according to Cherokee Indian Police Chief Ben Reed, is just not strong enough to reach into the Snowbird community in Graham County or the Cherokee County portions of tribal property.
Sometimes this causes problems and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s something Reed said his department is actively looking into.
“Due to the mountainous terrain, it does create issues for us to develop a radio communications system that would reach 45 miles away or 60 miles away,” said Reed. “It’s very difficult to do.”
And while this doesn’t necessarily keep officers from answering calls, it does make communication between the police department and its officers in the outlying regions more difficult and time consuming.
Reed said that his department works closely with the sheriff offices of both counties, who allow the tribal cops to use their radio systems whenever it’s necessary. But calls don’t always come into the local counties’ 911 dispatches; sometimes, they’re called straight into the Cherokee dispatch center, which makes contacting an officer in Graham and Cherokee counties onerous.
Reed said that he and the other emergency response agencies are now putting together a task force to address that very issue, and hopefully they’ll be able to come up with some solutions as early as the end of next week.
“We’re going to figure out, you know, what are our options,” said Reed. “We need to get all these things in place and see where we’re at and is it even possible?”
Whether that means erecting new towers or getting newer, more powerful radio systems for outlying officers, Reed said he’s confident they can find solutions to the problem. The real issue, however, is funding those solutions.
“That’s probably going to take a lot of funding, and where’s the funding going to come from?” Reed said. “We can search for grants and lobby for more funding through our current resources, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Meanwhile, the community is calling for a fix to the police communication problems that they see on the ground in the outer counties.
At a special tribal council meeting last month called specifically to address concerns of law and order on the Qualla Boundary, several residents lamented the slow response times to the more remote communities.
“When we talk about the jurisdiction of the land, the Qualla Boundary, it’s not just here on the main which has Jackson and Swain counties, but you’ve got Graham County and you also have Cherokee County,” said Cherokee resident Missy Crowe. “I’ve heard from the brothers and sisters way down in Cherokee County that they would call the police and they’d be lucky if they’d get an officer to respond to them.”
Reed said that, while they do have substations in both counties and six officers assigned to them — four in Snowbird and two in Cherokee County — he knows that more officers can always make things better.
“You can never have enough police officers, and although the calls are minimal in those areas, we still have to provide the community with sufficient resources to serve that population there,” said Reed, adding that his department has worked with those two communities over the last several years to identify just what residents want and need from law enforcement.
But when it comes to actually improving on-the-ground radio communication and coverage for remote communities, Reed said it’s just not something he and his officers can tackle alone.
Reed and his department are overseen by a police commission appointed by tribal council. And while he said he welcomes the oversight and needs the help, it’s no secret that the department and the commission have been at odds in recent months about the commission’s role and relationship to the police.
At last month’s meeting, Reed and members of the police commission had vocal disagreements about the commission’s actions, with Reed taking the position that commissioners were homing in on petty and restrictive issues while ignoring the bigger problems at hand. Radio communications, he said, were one of those concerns, and he reiterated that stance in an interview.
“That’s where we need help,” said Reed. “Those kind of issues aren’t easy. That’s not something that we can just look at tomorrow and say we need A, B and C done and just knock it out.”
He didn’t say whether the commission had been approached for involvement in the process, but noted that improving their radio signals was an important proactive step in the tribe’s crime-fighting approach.
“We’ve not had any major issues with it,” said Reed, “but we shouldn’t sit round and wait on a major issue to happen.”