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A woman's suicide in a service vehicle highlights varying standards and shortcomings of independent forces , reports Carrie Tait

A gaggle of youngsters surrounds Constable Brice Iron Shirt, trying on black boots, rooting through cardboard boxes looking for proper pants, asking if the brand new uniforms fit properly. They are cadets getting kitted out at Tatsikiisaapo'p Middle School.

Constable Iron Shirt adjusts Kalea Firstrider's jaunty black inspection beret. She is in Grade 7, and this is her second year in cadets. Kalea, like some of her pals checking out their new threads, wants to be a police officer.

"I want to make the community safe," she says.

That is the kind of thing Constable Iron Shirt wants to hear. He is a school resource officer on the Blood reserve, Canada's largest, and a member of the Blood Tribe Police Service. His cadet program could help shape the Blood Tribe service's future, building new trust – particularly with youngsters – and helping the next generation understand the importance of modern and traditional laws. Constable Iron Shirt spends his days in the reserve's schools rather than on patrol.

Related: Woman's death in custody exposes indigenous policing issues

Related: Ontario First Nations threaten to disband police service over funding issues

This type of work – and Kalea's curiosity – is especially important as the Blood Tribe searches for a new police chief. An indigenous leader would be preferred, but a non-indigenous person who understands Blackfoot culture and traditional laws, and the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples could qualify. Someone who is sensitive to the legacy of residential schools, understands why indigenous people are wary of police, and who wants to strengthen the community.

Senior Constable Brice Iron Shirt, the school resource officer in Stand Off, Alta., helps fit a new hat on student cadet, Felix Many Bears. The local police department has a student recruitment program for teens who can join the cadet program to learn about local policing and community concerns.

Senior Constable Brice Iron Shirt, the school resource officer in Stand Off, Alta., helps fit a new hat on student cadet, Felix Many Bears. The local police department has a student recruitment program for teens who can join the cadet program to learn about local policing and community concerns.

Chris Bolin/For The Globe and Mail

The Blood Tribe Police Service, which protects about 12,000 people, is part of the First Nations Policing Program, a Canadian strategy designed to empower indigenous communities by funding independent police services. One of its goals is to increase the number of indigenous people on the forces. Kalea would be an ideal recruit one day. The FNPP's aims range from reducing racial tension between officers and the community to creating jobs for indigenous people. It is in keeping with the push for indigenous self-government and reconciliation with the rest of Canada.

But even the program's proponents question its success. Bands say it must be better funded, and problems range from attracting and retaining experienced officers to a shortfall of basic equipment such as radios and jail cells. Officers with the Blood Tribe police service generally make less money than their counterparts in the RCMP or other forces.

Further, the standards governing Canada's indigenous police forces vary.

The Blood Tribe force must meet Alberta's policing legislation and standards, but the wording of some FNPP agreements in Ontario, for example, means indigenous forces do not have to meet provincial standards, according to a 2014 auditor-general report.

First Nations policing

Some facts about Canada’s First Nations Policing Program:

First Nations and Inuit communities with their own police forces in 2014-2015: 450

Number of officers on the job: 1,299

Number of people policed in 2013-2014: 347,217 or 64 per cent of the First Nations and Inuit population

Budget in each of those years: $120-million

Crime rates between 2004 and 2013 on reserves policed under the program: Dropped by 17 per cent

Crime rates between 2004 and 2013 in the rest of Canada: Dropped by 33 per cent

Crime rates on reserves operating under the program: Roughly four times higher than that in the rest of Canada

Violent crime rates across the rest of the country between 2004 and 2014: Dropped 21 per cent

Violent crime rates in communities policed under the program: Dropped 20 per cent

Violent crimes on reserves operating under the FNPP: Six times more likely to occur in these communities. Incidents of assault and sexual assault are about seven times higher.

Source: Public Safety Canada

The nationwide FNPP agreement expires on March 31, 2018, and negotiations for its replacement are taking place as an inquest into the suicide of Lena Anderson puts the program's shortcomings in the national spotlight.

Ms. Anderson died in the back of a Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service truck on the Kasabonika Lake First Nation in 2013.

She was there because the F-150 truck essentially was serving as a jail cell. NAPS is responsible for the area stretching from the Manitoba border up the James Bay coast in northern Ontario and over to the Quebec border.

NAPS' problems are so severe its board chair this week asked the inquest's jury to recommend disbanding the force if Ontario does not make it comply with regulations governing other forces, such as training standards and codes of conduct, by next March.

* * *

Two officers on patrol on the Blood reserve are talking to each other on outdated radios. A well-known troublemaker who is part of the area's drug subculture is walking through a neighbourhood known for solvent abuse. He may have a 9mm Beretta handgun. It is just before 1 p.m.

"He's in the Husky parking lot," an officer says over the radio.

"Wanna go high-risk on him?" Sergeant Rayan Najjar responds.

"10-4," the first cops says.

The two are members of the Blood Tribe's Police Service. The suspect is in a nearby crosswalk. They flick on their flashers, get out of their trucks, and arrest the tattooed man. Together, the two officers pat him down, check under his hat and put him in the back seat of a marked police truck.

Constable Rayan Najjar with the Blood Tribe Police Service detains a local resident who was suspected of carrying a firearm.

Constable Rayan Najjar with the Blood Tribe Police Service detains a local resident who was suspected of carrying a firearm.

Chris Bolin/For The Globe and Mail

Together, the two officers represent 50 per cent of the police members on duty on this hot fall day. The Blood Tribe Police Service, Sgt. Najjar says, is understaffed, underfunded, under-equipped, unable to focus on prevention.

"Right now, we're just kind of putting out a grass fire with a cup of water," Sgt. Najjar says.

It was just luck he and his fellow officer were in the same area when the handgun call came in. The suspect was clean. They released him.

On the Blood reserve, backup in risky situations is often 20 minutes away. Racing to arrests leaves little time to build relationships with residents, a pillar of the FNPP.

"We want that community involvement as much as possible – the face-to-face," Sgt. Najjar says, noting the force's budget has not changed since 2004.

"But because we cover such a large area, and we are limited in the number of officers that we have, it makes it very difficult to do that other stuff that should be a priority."

The Stl'atl'imx Tribal Police Service is British Columbia's only tribal police force, and Lil'wat Nation is among those it serves. Lil'wat Chief Dean Nelson said two members of the force serve his immediate community of about 1,500, with another few hundred residents scattered nearby.

"They are overworked," he said. "Sometimes there is only one person at a time."

The Stl'atl'imx Tribal Police Service has six officers, polices about 5,000 people, and its territory is about a four-hour drive end-to-end. Four communities are accessible only by forest roads.

"[The FNPP] is a good idea, but it is not supported," Chief Nelson said in an interview. "It comes down to funding. …We had a lot of staff … move from the tribal police to higher-paying regular police [forces]."

Constable Rayan Najjar with the Blood Tribe Police Service looks for used needles near an abandoned house.

Constable Rayan Najjar with the Blood Tribe Police Service looks for used needles near an abandoned house.

Chris Bolin/For The Globe and Mail

* * *

Fifty-eight First Nation administered police services have been created since the First Nations Policing Program's inception in 1992. Of those, 20 had disbanded by 2010, according to a Public Safety Canada report released earlier this year. They were hit by a "liability of newness," the report said.

Most were in Quebec and Alberta, with nine and seven failures, respectively. Small forces with tiny budgets were at greatest risk. The majority of the remaining First Nations police services are in Quebec and Ontario.

The FNPP's budget has been frozen since 2007 at $105-million, although stop-gap funding measures were implemented between 2008 and 2015.

Proponents hope the negotiations for 2018 translate into more cash.

The Tsuu T'ina Nation Police Service is one of the program's success stories, although it has advantages other indigenous communities do not: extra cash from its own coffers and a desirable location.

"We're lucky that we're a prosperous Nation," said Kevin Littlelight, a spokesman for Tsuu T'ina and one of its founding police commissioners.

Tsuu T'ina Nation abuts Calgary, so it can attract ex-RCMP officers who want to live in or near a city and avoid the chance of being transferred. The force's territory is also contained – no flying to remote crime scenes or manning a detachment solo.

Since Tsuu T'ina Police Service launched, response times on the reserve have improved, crime has dropped, and residents are more co-operative with local police, even though the chief is not indigenous, he said.

"The aboriginal population here was more open to talk and communicate with an aboriginal police force – especially their own people," Mr. Littlelight said.

"They feel more comfortable with their own – like anyone on the planet who feels more comfortable with their own people, especially in traumatic situations."