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Back to Archives | Back to August 2004 Contents 

How the Annual IACP Conference Helps: Stopping Domestic Violence in Indian Country

By Sondra Leftoff, Ph.D., John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York City

Editor's note: This article was adapted from "Little Things Mean a Lot in the Heart of Indian Country," which appeared in Law Enforcement News, published by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in March 2004.

With ingenuity, $25,000 can go a long way. For Sergeant Albert Benally, the deputy sheriff in charge of inspections in the McKinley County, New Mexico, Sheriff's Department, a $25,000 grant in 1996 from the New Mexico Indian Behavioral Health Council provided the funds to start a domestic violence diversion program in the sheriff's department in Gallup, New Mexico.

For his work, the Indian Country Law Enforcement Section of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) named Benally the 2003 Police Officer of the Year for Indian Country. Benally received the award during the 2003 annual IACP meeting in Philadelphia. This article describes his program, the award, and the importance of the annual IACP conference for facilitating information exchange among police departments.

Training and Technical Assistance for Indian Country Law Enforcement

The IACP Foundation has approved almost $20,000 in funding to present five regional training symposia for tribal law enforcement agencies. More than 100 Indian Country policing representatives will receive no-cost training in these key subject areas:

  • Grant writing and MOU development

  • Leadership training and mentoring for first-line supervisors

  • Strategic planning

For more information on this program or IACP's training and technical assistance for smaller agencies, write to Elaine Deck at>

The Elders' Project: Combating Domestic Violence
Sergeant Benally's nomination for the award described his outstanding police work, including his drug seizures, but it was his establishment of the Elders' Project, a program that brings police and community members together to help families resolve the problem of domestic violence, that led judges to select him as the award winner. "I'd rather see someone correct a situation than go to jail," said Bill Kellogg, retired police chief of the Navajo Nation and presently chief deputy of the McKinley County Sheriff's Department, as he explained his high regard for the Elders' Project. "I want to see a family problem heal, not escalate."

The domestic violence project is one outcome of Benally's desire to develop law enforcement agendas that grow out of an understanding of the unique needs of Native American communities and that use community-inspired models to address them. For Benally, it is an attitude of collaboration that will foster more effective law enforcement in Indian Country and a willingness of outsiders to acquire a deeper knowledge of the community that will make that possible.

As a Navajo who grew up in McKinley County, Benally knows firsthand how community and policing expectations may clash. A former U.S. Marine who was stationed both in the United States and abroad, he also knows the difficulties of working across cultural divides. In McKinley County, it can mean that policing initiatives developed for nonnative communities may undermine efforts to reduce crime when they are applied without revision to Native American communities. For example, although FBI crime priorities for policing reservations put property crime 10th on the list, it is a high priority in Native American communities. "Property means a lot to Native Americans," said Benally. "It's their identity and what they're trying to accomplish in life. Property crime is a huge victimization. Victims consider property crime to be serious and want us to make an arrest. If someone tells a Navajo it is not a priority crime, it is a revictimization," he added.

To Benally, policing goals should aim to find a good fit between policing interventions and community concerns about crime and safety. In his view, collaboration is how the fit can be achieved, particularly through developing policing policies and programs that engage the community. Where property crimes are concerned, for example, the priority list should be more proactive with these crimes. Explaining the Navajos' view, Benally said, "For the victim of a property crime, it's serious. That's true for the offender as well. You start as a punk, often beginning with property crime. But that's not addressed. It's too late to stop them when they kill."

Where domestic violence is concerned, policing goals of ending the violence and removing the offender through incarceration or other alternatives have not been particularly successful interventions in the Navajo community. Experience has shown that jail can provide opportunities to learn more subtle approaches to abuse and better ways to hide it. It also doesn't do much to change relationships among family members. It hardly gets to the roots of the problem, which for Navajos include the aftereffects of a traumatizing history of dislocation and exploitation. "This is where other cultural avenues come in. The clan way needs to be addressed," Benally said. Focusing on clans puts a priority on connections between individuals. Benally's program also connects Navajo elders, who serve as mentors, teachers, and resources of traditional knowledge, to offenders and victims who come through the program. This is a collaboration that is working across generations.

The McKinley County program brings Navajo elders to the county sheriff's department to work with either the offender or the victim of domestic violence in a multisession format. These elders, who also serve as peacemakers in the Navajo Nation Peacemaker Court (a traditional alternative to the adversarial court system), bring their traditional knowledge as well as their experience in resolving conflicts through peacemaking to this intensive intervention program. The program includes both working one-on-one with participants and collaborative peacemaking with disputants. Completion of the program takes between three and four months, although the relationship with the elder may be of much greater duration.

Participants are brought into the program as quickly as possible after the involvement of the sheriff's department in the case. The program grew out of Benally's collaboration with a group of peacemakers from the Eastern District Peacemaker Court in Crownpoint, New Mexico, on the Navajo reservation. Benally consulted with this group of peacemakers to develop a program that incorporated Navajo values of restoring good relations through "talking things out" and one that gave the elders a vital role in the lives of the participants. The program, a work in progress, attempts to reconcile traditional interventions with contemporary law and contemporary needs of the community.

The individual sessions allow each partner time to address his or her issues privately. It also gives elders an opportunity to teach traditional knowledge and to act as mentors in a carefully designed program featuring a series of steps. This is followed by a general peacemaking session. Although the elders may bring much needed understanding to the individuals involved, the program also emphasizes the role of the community in maintaining individual outcomes and in restoring relationships.

Police Officer of the Year for Indian Country
The IACP award acknowledged Benally's work in developing this early intervention program for county residents. His approach to domestic violence in the county-a high desert region in western New Mexico and a patchwork of Navajo reservation land and nonreservation communities-provides an alternative to the adversarial model typically used by the criminal justice system.

The trip to the IACP conference in Philadelphia brought Benally and his program national exposure and led to growing interest in his approach to policing domestic violence in Indian Country, where neither reservation police nor federal officials have been very successful in reversing an escalation in the number of domestic violence cases. The opportunity to bring his program to a wider audience can help develop better policing interventions in Native American communities and increase police awareness of the needs of these communities.

The IACP award for the top Indian Country police officer began only three years ago. Bill Kellogg, a long-standing member of the organization, led the effort to establish the award. In his view, "Indian Country law enforcement had been left behind," and an award would be one way to acknowledge the challenges of policing in these communities. "It is important to honor the many officers on the reservation who die in the line of duty," he added.

Benefits of the Conference
The IACP meeting presented its own potential for collaboration across cultures of policing. The award ceremony brought Sergeant Benally's program to the attention of a diverse cross-section of law enforcement agents involved in Indian Country, and his attendance at the conference brought home to Benally the importance of the conference as a resource for Native American law enforcement professionals and a vehicle for promoting law enforcement agendas of Native American communities.

Attending the conference for the first time, Benally got the opportunity to learn what the conference had to offer tribes, including information about funding sources and future government policy objectives and guidelines. What troubled Benally was, in his view, the small showing of tribal representatives at the Indian Country section meetings. "All tribes should be there," he said. "Otherwise, they're not getting information on funding that's available, on what's coming down the tube from the government. This meeting is where views and problems are shared. There should be more Indians there to find out how the system works, express their views, have a greater voice."

Funding for conference registration and related travel is a police department budget item and is usually slated for the chief. According to Kellogg, tribal police chiefs usually receive conference-related funds from their tribal councils when they request it. Providing such funds may be a problem for smaller tribes.

Benally's attendance at the conference provided a learning opportunity for other practitioners searching for solutions to escalating violence in Indian Country. For Benally, it also raised new collaborative possibilities for developing domestic violence programs in Indian Country.

Rich Kuiters, a senior program specialist for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, came to the annual IACP conference with collaboration on his agenda. An expert in developing and running training programs in domestic violence for law enforcement agents, prosecutors, and advocates throughout the country (train-the-trainer programs), he had recently turned his attention to the needs of such programs in Indian Country. The Department of Justice's Office of Violence Against Women provided funds to develop a training program for Indian Country. "I came to the conference looking for help," Kuiters said. Although he understood the need for innovation in dealing with domestic violence in Indian Country, he hoped to turn to local experts in developing and running such a program for tribes and surrounding communities. "I want it to come from the tribes and not from us. I want a tribal person to run the program," he said. That's when he met Benally.

Benefits beyond the Conference
Benally's peacemaking program intrigued Kuiters, giving him food for thought on potential directions for the project. The program's involvement of tribal elders could be a template other tribes could rely on as they as created programs to meet their needs.

Along with Michael Glover, a representative from the Office of Violence Against Women, Kuiters recently visited the McKinley County Sheriff's Department in Gallup to learn more about Benally's domestic violence program and to meet the elders who conduct it.

John Yearly, a McKinley County deputy sheriff who is active in running the Elders' Program, met with them on their visit to Gallup. "They wanted to know if our program could be bootstrapped to other communities and used cross-culturally," Yearly said. He had his own vision of the potential application of this program to other communities in Indian Country, coining the name "Masters of the Culture." In his plan, reservation elders would use their own cultural knowledge to modify the approach to domestic violence that is working so well in McKinley County and tailor it for their own culture. Benally went a step further. "If they (project directors) want to adopt it, we can install the skeleton and train their (individual tribe's) traditionalists," he said. It would be going quite a long way on $25,000, and for Benally it would be just the kind of collaboration that is needed in this field. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 8, August 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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