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Cultural Communications - Tribal Enforcement, DUI, & South Dakota's Initiatives To Save Lives on its Highways

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After A Distinguished Career Top South Dakota Cop Reflects On The Most Important Issues Facing His State And Perhaps The Nation

Article & Photos by John Christopher Fine

He didn’t show up for work. Animals had to be fed and the rancher, a senior citizen all alone on the place without help, had to lug 75-pound bales of hay and heavy feed buckets to the livestock. “He called. He’s in jail. This is his second DWI.”

The tribal member was released the next day and turned up for work. “It’s not considered very serious up here on the reservation. One tribal member has seventeen drunk driving convictions. They don’t take their licenses away. Not a big thing,” the rancher said, acknowledging a problem that is the single biggest cause of highway fatalities in South Dakota. In the nation.

Responding to challenges and impediments created by jurisdictional autonomy on the nine South Dakota Indian reservations, Colonel Dan Mosteller, recently retired Superintendent of the state’s Highway Patrol, made education and awareness his most important priority to reverse the cycle of tragedy that occurs when people drink and drive.

South Dakota’s highways are among the nation’s best. Roads stretch flat and straight to the horizon in many places. Highway speed limits are 75 mph on major roadways and 65 mph on open roads. Signs dot the roadside everywhere. Crosses have been replaced with standardized black and white metal markers that read: “Why Die?” and “Think.” Some roadsides offer silent testimony to tragic crashes where five and more fatalities occurred. High speed, inclement weather, that can include snow and ice, and drinking offer up a formula for disaster.

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“One area that we are trying to make an inroad in is on reservations across the state. Native Americans are concerned with their sovereign nation status. That’s fine with me. The point I’m making is it is something a hundred years before me and not a hundred years after me. I’m concerned with now. Some states take reservations off their highway statistics. I don’t. I don’t care whether a person is red, white or what. If you die or are injured in South Dakota, I’m concerned about it,” Colonel Mosteller said.

“Should you be worth less if you live on a reservation? I don’t buy into the theory that administrator’s want to look good by taking reservation statistics out. No matter where you live in this state you are a citizen of South Dakota,” he added.

One of the issues has always been a lack of trust between Native Americans and government. In the past there was good reason for this distrust. Whole nations of people were displaced onto what was thought to be worthless lands when gold was discovered in the East. They were displaced again and again when gold or oil was discovered on their new lands. Treaties were dishonored and Native American lifeways destroyed. What replaced them was dependence on the dole and a history that describes whites spreading alcoholism among the tribes to further cheat them in trade. There is scientific evidence to prove that Native Americans are more susceptible to addiction to alcohol than other groups.

“We are trying to build trust between Indian people and the State Highway Patrol and Department of Public Safety. We’ve made great gains around the state on non-reservation lands. We’ve made great gains through education. People are taking it seriously. It is no longer a rite of passage to drink and drive. There are designated drivers. People are using free taxi service to get them home. The statistics are going in the right direction,” Mosteller explained.

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Brooke Bohnenkamp, the department’s public information officer, projected highway crash statistics on a large screen in the conference room at Highway Patrol Headquarters in Pierre. Total crashes, fatal crashes, injury crashes and fatalities were listed for alcohol involved vehicular accidents.

“I don’t sit here and say this is something I’ve done. It is a cooperative effort between public safety, counties and local officials. We have publicity campaigns that say drinking and driving is not acceptable. It has a devastating effect on families, there are deaths and crippling injuries,” the Superintendent emphasized reviewing the statistics.

“Every alcohol related crash is preventable by not drinking. I’m not Pollyanna and say we’ll eliminate crashes but a person can make a conscious decision not to drink and drive. I know we cannot go onto a reservation and make an immediate change. Alcoholism and drug abuse have been going on from generation to generation. If we can make a difference of even 4%, I tell them that may not be a significant number but if even one person is saved it is important. In our hearts it is the same, people love family no matter what the culture,” Colonel Mosteller said.

His concerns were echoed by Jim Jandreau, Manager of Bear Butte State Park. Jim is Lakota and the first Native American state park manager. “Look at our reservations today. Alcoholism is a norm. We throw all the rehab money at the other end of that spectrum. We’re massaging people’s livers to let them live two more years. We should start at the kindergarten and get kids at the start before it becomes a problem,” Jandreau said.

“The reason I left Lower Brule Reservation is I wanted to break that chain for my kids. My oldest daughter got out of the joint in April. Had I not turned her in she would not have gotten help for drugs,” he said. Jim Jandreau manages the site Indians consider sacred. Many find solace and peace on Bear Butte mountain and turn to prayer for guidance.

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The issues described by these two state officials have become critical. When drunk drivers are involved in vehicular crashes they are often fatal tragedies. ‘Alive 25,’ a defensive driving course, has been brought to South Dakota. Targeting drivers age 14 to 24 the 4.5-hour course teaches young people how to be responsible behind the wheel. The program has been implemented at the St. Joseph Indian School.

“We try to be ambassadors and work with the tribes. I say ‘I want to assist you in any way I can.’ I walk in at meetings with what’s in my heart. We can make a big impact without affecting sovereign nations, a significant impact if we can make a change on the reservations,” Mosteller said.

Then he echoed what the Lakota Park Manager at Bear Butte said: “If we can start now and reach with this message to young people and get a mind set. If you can get those young people to change it will carry on from generation to generation.”

Colonel Mosteller described how in the past non-natives went onto reservations with brochures, plans, and posters that didn’t work. “They were our artists’ conceptions. They didn’t have a big effect. We ask tribal members what their conception is. We send Native American troopers to talk since it puts more credence in the message. We’ve developed brochures, TV and radio ads that are geared for native people. They can identify with these messages to attract them to something they can embrace and recognize as their own. We’re working toward road signs with a Native American twist. It will not just say ‘Don’t drink and drive.’ We will use something that is symbolic of their culture to make them think. Any change would result in huge saving of lives on the reservations,” Mosteller added.

Working in cooperation with tribal police is an important part of Highway Patrol success in curbing drunk driving. Of the nine reservations in South Dakota, three are open (there are checkerboard areas with non-native populations) and six are closed. Highway Patrol radio is digital. There are three radio centers in the state. The radio center at Pierre is headquarters, the other dispatch centers are in Huron and Rapid City. Repeater towers have been established throughout the state to improve radio communications in rural and mountainous areas.

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“From Pierre State Radio we can talk to state, county, city agencies, fire and rescue units and ambulance services. We can communicate with the Department of Transportation, Agriculture, Corrections and other state and local agencies,” Colonel Mosteller said.

Reservation police can talk through interagency channels. “Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation officers in the field do not have digital radios yet. The rest have interagency and can inter-talk with our radios,” he added.

State Highway Patrol cars are equipped with mobile data terminals, video cameras, lap top computers and each trooper is issued a cell phone. Use of the computer now affects the radio. “I want troopers to be able to run a 28, license check, so that it will not affect radio traffic. We are getting that program implemented,” Colonel Mosteller said.

“For each different area in the state we have a tower with State Radio. State Radio is our primary dispatch,” Sergeant John Broers said. Broers joined the Highway Patrol in 1999. “From that tower we can talk to counties. From Pierre State Radio Headquarters we can go to any agency, EMS, fire, game wardens, police departments and sheriffs. Anybody involved in emergency management through Homeland Security,” he added.

“It is joint radio and all encompassing. Anyone in South Dakota that is allowed to use the radio can be brought into communication with us,” Lieutenant David J. Schnettler said. Lieutenant Schnettler joined the Highway Patrol in 1991.

“We have a talk-around channel that’s semi-private. Our radios can contact the National Weather Service. We have car to car capability. We can talk to Nebraska and Iowa. If they are equipped with digital radios we can hear them and talk to them,” Sergeant Broers said.

“Soon we’ll have our cars so that where there is cell phone coverage we can have wireless internet. Once there is that interconnectivity we can run driver’s licenses, do anything our dispatchers can do except get protected information. It will not interface with the radio, it will not tie up the radio. We’ve gone to wireless internet cards but we need a cell phone signal,” Sergeant Broers added.

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Getting cell phone signals is not always apparent in South Dakota. There are zones where no cell phone service is available.

Using State Radio troopers in South Dakota can communicate with federal agencies and tribal police.

“Tribal police will call us and we can pick up the pursuit. Our work on reservations is limited. We will assist in an accident if requested. Troopers know what Indian land is and isn’t. When we are in pursuit we use the radio and contact the tribe and are respectful. We request permission to continue the pursuit and most of the time they will give their permission. They don’t want drunk drivers at high speed on their roads.” Colonel Mosteller explained the protocol involved when jurisdictions are crossed.

“In years past we had a gentleman’s agreement. If it was an open reservation and it was a detainable offense we’d call the tribe. If it was something like a broken headlight and the driver was a Native American, we’d just wave and say ‘Have a safe trip.’ If it was a non-native we’d arrest if it was a detainable violation,” the Superintendent added.

“The challenge we are facing now is to make our radios P 25 compliant. We’ll have to address that in the next two years,” Mosteller said.

South Dakota’s Superintendent of Highway Patrol then reflected “If there is anything that I do in my career, I want to make an impact on drunk driving and crash fatalities and injuries on the reservations. In 2002 we had 50.6% fatalities that were alcohol related that went to 42% in 2007. In human terms statistics reveal 91 people killed in 2002 and 62 killed in 2007 as the result of drunken driving,” he concluded.

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Superintendent Mosteller retired in June 2010. His career spanned many generations. He began as  a rookie trooper, became a sergeant and training officer and eventually the leader of this elite corps of law enforcement officers. His experience, the experience of law enforcement administrators everywhere, leads invariably to the same conclusion. Substance abuse results in fatalities and serious injury and property damage on the nation’s roads and highways.

Communication for South Dakota’s Highway Patrol means two things: reaching other agencies by radio when need for cooperation arises and reaching other nations when cooperation is needed to curb and prevent disaster. Changing the mind-set of people that drink and drive, whatever culture they belong to, is top priority. Once that message is understood then the emotional and stressful duty of Highway Patrol officers to communicate tragic news of loss of loved ones and their bearing witness to terrible maiming injuries will be reduced.


John Christopher Fine served as Senior Assistant District Attorney in New York County. He was the Assistant Attorney General In Charge, Organized Crime Task Force and served various state and federal law enforcement and investigative agencies. He is the author of 24 books and remains a consultant to law enforcement on national security issues and organized crime, and a frequent contributor to 9-1-1 Magazine.

See John's related story on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal PD

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