WHITE EARTH (AP) -- For the two years since the 15-member White Earth Tribal Police Department was formed, officers have been taking home their squad cars after work.
A new cost-cutting policy requires the officers, many of whom live outside the reservation borders, to drive their personal cars to a central location to pick up their squad cars before each shift.
At least one officer has quit, and others are angry. They say the policy change cuts both their pay and service to reservation residents, since tribal police no longer can answer emergency calls from home when they are off-duty.
"It's going to be an absolutely detrimental move for that police department to take away take-home cars for their officers," said Jim Crace, who spent a year as a sergeant in the department until he left in April to become police chief of Benson.
"It's just common sense," Crace added. "Numerous times I was called from my residence to the reservation when I was off-duty. ... Had I had to go to the office first it would have been one and a half or two hours lag time."
The White Earth Reservation is 1,375 square miles and includes all or part of three counties.
"In an area that big you have to run it like a sheriff's department, you can't run it like a city police department," said Bob Borden, who was a captain in the department for a year until he left in May to become a deputy in Montana's Broadwater County.
Police Chief Rusty Pavey, who lives in Detroit Lakes, strongly opposes the new policy, saying it is unfair to officers and terrible for morale.
"A decision like this basically cripples us overnight," he said. "When they took away the squad cars ... it's like they took part of the officers' uniform with them."
Warren Rethwisch, chief deputy with the Becker County Sheriff's Department, said his agency is concerned that the tribal policy change will hurt law enforcement efforts on the reservation. Tribal officers often are asked to help deputies in emergencies and when deputies are tied up elsewhere, Rethwisch said.
Both Borden and Crace blame tribal public safety director Ken Badboy for damaging the department.
"If the department fails, he's responsible," Crace said.
Badboy said he did not initiate the new policy and would support take-home squad cars for officers "under certain circumstances, based on how many people I have to go out into the field. ... I don't want to cut short the service we're providing to the public."
The new policy may be temporary, he said. A task force is working on how best to handle the tribal fleet of vehicles.
Frank Annette, new tribal executive director, said the tribe simply is implementing basic internal controls over its vehicles and purchases.
"We have a lot of vehicles and with the higher gas prices the cost of maintaining those vehicles is skyrocketing," Annette said.
The new policy applies to all tribal vehicles, Annette said.
Annette and Badboy said there was never a written policy allowing take-home squad cars, but Crace said it was used as a recruitment tool.
Police officers say other administrative changes seem aimed at lowering morale, including requiring them to have signed gas vouchers in advance before they can fill up their squad cars. Previously, they could sign for gas at pre-approved stations. And the last of three K-9 units was eliminated two weeks ago.
Badboy said he is not worried about officer morale. "We've got a backlog of people who want to work here," he said.
The department is near full strength, and four recently hired officers will hit the streets after they complete a mandatory 16-week training course, he said.
Borden said he hopes the tribal police department isn't destroyed. "I'd still be working there if they'd let it be a police department," he said.
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