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Robert Ecoffey

Robert Ecoffey, chief of police for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, discusses changes in his department from his office at the Justice Center near Pine Ridge. 

Six months into his new position as police chief of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Robert Ecoffey has brought new ideas and programs to a department that was lacking steady leadership and understaffed.

"I think the biggest impact we've had in the last six months is simply the number of officers we have on the street," Ecoffey said last week while sitting at his desk at the Pine Ridge Justice Center.

In April, the department had 24 police officers, he said. Now, it has 54.

Previously, Ecoffey said, response time was slower since officers sometime had to respond to a call 50 or 60 miles away. Now, officers are spread throughout the reservation.

"Our presence is much more felt by the community," he said.

Ecoffey, 64, said he came out of a five-year retirement to become police chief "simply because the tribe was having issues with stability in our law enforcement program and finding stable leadership.

“I care about the community that I grew up in and and the safety of the public," said Ecoffey, who was raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation and now lives in Rapid City.

He was hired after another candidate rejected an offer for the position after a nearly year-long search. He succeeded Mark Mesteth, who took over as interim police chief after Harry Martinez resigned in April 2017 following a vote of no confidence from the tribal council.

Ecoffey previously served as a police officer with the OST and had a 36-year career with the federal government, 25 in law enforcement. He was a special agent with the U.S. Forest Service, the director of law enforcement for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the first Native American to serve as a U.S. marshal in South Dakota. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Chadron State College.

Ecoffey isn't the only former retiree to join the OST's Department of Public Safety. He convinced a former colleague to come out of retirement to work in the cold case unit he created to focus on unsolved missing and murdered person cases.

The police department is looking into the October 2015 disappearance of Alejandro "Tank" Vazquez, August 2016 homicide of Todd Little Bull, and the October 2016 disappearance of Larissa Lonehill. It's also looking into the 1999 homicides of Wilson Black Elk and Ronald Hard Heart.

"We're fully engaged in that to try to resolve some of these cases and bring some resolution for family members," Ecoffey said.

Ecoffey said he's assigned three officers to work full time on enforcing the tribe's drug and alcohol laws (alcohol sale and consumption is illegal on the reservation). He said many people thought illegal alcohol sales would decrease after Whiteclay, Nebraska — which borders Pine Ridge — shuttered its alcohol stores. But Ecoffey said he's seen an increase in bootlegging.

"They're selling everything and anything to anybody. There's no control over what they're selling," he said, adding that he's seen people sell vodka disguised as plastic water bottles.

In June, the department was the first Native American law enforcement agency to join First Net, a program of the federal government and AT&T that improves communications for first responders.

The program gives priority to first responders' phone calls when there are large crowds, such as a powwow, or an emergency, such as a bad weather event or violent attack, Ecoffey said.

Ecoffey said he saw first-hand what happened without First Net during 9/11, when he was director of law enforcement at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.

"The problem, which occurred nationwide, was all the systems were basically overloaded with people checking on family members, other emergency traffic across the country, and you simply could not get through," he said.

Tawny Zimiga, the department's IT director, said First Net is free and has helped the tribe save money with discounted equipment and an unlimited data plan. The unlimited data lets police officers access the internet from their police cars.

The program gives the tribe access to a mobile cell tower in case one falls down or an extra is needed, Zimiga said. The tribe is also set to receive five more permanent cell towers to improve communication.

Future plans include creating a contract with the BIA's criminal investigations program, which has six agents. Once the OST police department takes over, Ecoffey said, the program will have 16 agents.

The department is also in the process of joining CALEA (Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies), an international organization that is meant to improve policing by creating standards and certificating agencies that meet them.

If the OST department is accepted into CALEA, it will join the Rapid City Police Department as the only two certified agencies in South Dakota.

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— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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