Trending Topics

Feds in your jurisdiction: Why cops should care about the Nev. ranch standoff

The standoff between the Bureau of Land Management and rancher Cliven Bundy has ended (for now) but should give local law enforcers something to consider as a possibility in their own jurisdiction

All policing is local. When federal law enforcement agencies make high-profile arrests garnering significant media attention, local law enforcement agencies — especially in smaller communities and rural areas — need to consider the long-term consequences of what may be a short-term federal presence. The law, public safety, and community culture may not always point to a clear answer.

The standoff between federal authorities and a local rancher named Cliven Bundy is merely the most recent example of the problems which can arise when federal authorities conduct an operation in a local jurisdiction, only to leave behind simmering tensions in the community.

There have been numerousinstances in the past — and each is instructive about the way in which local police are frequently left to deal with the after effects of a federal raid long after an operation is concluded.

Elian Gonzalez
On 22 April 2000, heavily armed federal agents raided the home of Lazaro Gonzalez to seize Elian Gonzalez. Fishermen had earlier found young Elian in a boat with his dead mother, trying to enter the U.S. from Cuba. His Miami-based family attempted to keep the boy in the United States, but after a protracted custody battle, the courts decided otherwise and federal authorities seized the child and returned him to his Cuban father.

In Miami, anti-Castro Cubans took their anger to the streets. Cuban-Americans left work and assembled in Little Havana. With the community divided and emotions inflamed by sensational media coverage, local police were left to deal with the aftermath, both political and criminal.

Operation Wagon Train
On 12 December 2006, after a 10-month investigation into identify theft, Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents raided six Swift & Company meatpacking plants across five states. Only a few of the 1,000 detained were prosecuted for identity theft. Homeland Security deported most for having been in the country illegally.

In Hyrum (Utah) — one of the locations of the multi-city raid— federal authorities reportedly did not notify the sheriff’s department about the raid;one law enforcement official said they had been “lucky” to find out about the raid at all.

In Grand Island (Neb.), Police Chief Steve Lamken would not let his officers participate in the raid.

“When this is all over,” he explained, “we’re still here taking care of our community and if I have a significant part of the population that’s fearful and won’t call us, then that’s not good for our community.”

Weld County, Colorado, was the location of another one of the 12 December raids. Local law enforcement officials there took a cue from both public sentiment and federal authorities. The district attorney, Ken Buck, a Republican with national political aspirations, followed the ICE raids with local law enforcement operations meant to curtail identity theft. He had attempted similar policing efforts before the December ICE raids, but the Colorado Supreme Court found these earlier tactics to have been unconstitutional.

Understandably, such an aggressive approach may have chilled the relationship between many of the illegal immigrants and the police.

Cliven Bundy
The Bundy incident earlier this month had similar implications, though this time it had nothing to do with immigration. The standoff between federal authorities and Bundy began over a long-running dispute between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the rancher.

In response to a court order, BLM law enforcement seized several hundred head of Bundy’s cattle.

Pro-Bundy protestors — and then eventually what the mainstream press called an “armed militia” — arrived to draw attention to what they believed to have been an egregious example of the federal government bullying citizens with violence (and under the flag of unconstitutional authority).

Reports surfaced that the standoff could have been the beginning of a range war, with some media warning of another Ruby Ridge or Waco.

In this case, local law enforcement managed the standoff between the armed federal authorities and the growing hostility of the protestors and the BLM released the seized cattle.

The Importance of the Issues
One reason this debate is so important — particularly for the men and women in local law enforcement — is that the federal government may be losing the support of the citizens it’s supposed to serve.

According to recent polling, 37 percent of likely American voters “fear the federal government” while only 19 percent “trust the federal government to do the right thing most or nearly all the time.” A whopping 67 percent believe that the “federal government…is a special interest group that looks out primarily for its own interests.”

To complicate matters, it’s a safe bet not everyone understands the differences between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, jurisdiction, and authority. Local police, as the most visible reflection of governmental authority in a community, become the low-hanging fruit of the blame game.

No wonder some local law enforcement authorities may not always fully cooperate with federal agencies, and not just on immigration either.

Looking to the Future
No matter which side of these issues one supports, the challenge of balancing federal and local law enforcement authority and presence in a community can be difficult. Though federal, state, and local law enforcement may seem to be on the same side, federal authorities aren’t playing on the same team — they aren’t even playing the same sport or under the same rules.

Federal law enforcement authorities do not fully embrace community policing, despite Justice Department insistence that local police do, especially if they want federal funding and in-kind support. If the polls are to be believed, the “community” federal officers serve may increasingly be the bureaucracy in which they work.

It’s pretty safe to say that it’s not over in Nevada. The BLM — which showed considered judgment in releasing Bundy’s cattle — now has a prestige decision to make: let Bundy continue grazing his cattle in off-limit areas or approach the problem again, this time with a different strategy.

Despite the extreme tone of both supporters and detractors, the Bundy incident has helped place the debate into the public forum, although shrill diatribe will drown out responsible public discourse, at least in the near-term. Sometimes upholding the letter of the law can clash with serving a community, and only the exercise of mature discretion can close the gap.

Retiring after nearly 22 years of active duty in the Army, Lance Eldridge worked as the director of a law enforcement training academy and served as a rural patrol deputy and patrol officer in Colorado. While in the military, he held leadership positions in a variety of organizations and has written extensively about US military strategy, operations, and history. He is a graduate of the US Army’s Command and General Staff College and the Norwegian Staff College. He holds a Masters Degree in History and a Masters Degree in Strategic Intelligence. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in national security strategy, European regional security, US history, and terrorism. He now works in northern Virginia.

Contact Lance Eldridge.