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Ledyard (AP) - A Connecticut tribe is moving to give its own police department a larger role inside its Foxwoods Resort Casino, but several former department employees say it can barely manage to patrol the tiny reservation, let alone the Western Hemisphere's largest casino.
Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation officers drive cruisers and carry guns, but the former employees say they resemble private security guards more than agents of the law. The department takes orders directly from tribal council members, blocks officers from pursuing investigations and has turned a blind eye to the sale of illegal drugs, ex-officers said in interviews with The Associated Press.
"The chief doesn't want tribal members to be investigated, to be prosecuted in any way, because then it comes back on him," said Steve Saucier, who worked part-time for the department until leaving in November. "If we do arrest somebody and it goes to tribal court, they throw it out. It does absolutely nothing."
The tribe has been pressing for its own police to replace state troopers in the casino - a change that could bring millions of dollars in savings annually for the Pequots, who have to reimburse the state for security coverage and are struggling with more than $2 billion in debt. The office of Connecticut's governor, which wants to put more troopers on the roads, has already reduced the security bill conditionally as it waits for tribal officers to obtain certifications they would need to be able to arrest non-tribal members.
In response to the AP's findings, Mike Lawlor, the governor's liaison on criminal justice policy, said the agreement depends on tribal police agreeing to abide by the state's standards. He said state attorneys are working out how to determine whether and when the tribe is ready.
"It's definitely in their interest to get them into a position where they would have full-fledged powers," Lawlor said. "If they don't, they won't get them."
The tribal council defended its police force.
"The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation Police force is fully trained and very competent to continue the policing of our gaming enterprise," the council said in a written statement.
One of the most pressing obstacles would be manpower.
The Pequots told the Connecticut governor's office as part of their proposal in July 2011 that they have 15 police officers, according to documents obtained by the AP through a Freedom of Information Act request.
But the tribal police currently have only nine officers, including the chief and two officers who recently joined from a training academy, according to two tribal government employees who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss internal affairs. Former officers say the department is stretched so thin that officers can barely cover shifts and emergency calls about fights and domestic disputes at times have to wait. Roughly 900 tribal members live in and around the Pequots' two-square-mile reservation. Some tribal officers have American Indian heritage but they are not required to be Pequot members.
"There were calls we couldn't get to right away, calls that had to wait because we didn't have any officers to send," said Robert Standeford, who left the tribal police in 2010 after a decade of service. "I always called for state backup when we needed it, but that wasn't a practice they wanted."
The chief of tribal police is Daniel Collins, a Marine Corps veteran who requires that officers salute him. The tribe did not respond to requests to interview Collins.
Several former officers said the chief takes instructions directly from tribal members. They say he did not direct officers not to arrest certain individuals, but would classify sensitive cases as investigations and allow them to languish indefinitely.
In one case, Standeford said, the police chief told officers not to pursue what could have been a major drug bust. The tribe was holding an annual outdoor celebration about five years ago in a part of the reservation known as Stump Mountain when officers stopped a man with a large baggie full of marijuana. The man told officers he got the drugs from a white van that was loaded with marijuana. But Standeford said the chief told officers to release the man, had them dump the drugs on the ground and spoke with the van driver, who then drove off the reservation.
"You don't just dump drugs when you tell everyone in the community we're working to make it better," he said.
Foxwoods, which receives tens of thousands of visitors daily, currently has state troopers stationed around the clock inside the casino, where they made 181 arrests in 2010, mostly for assault or larceny. The Pequots have been required to pay $4 million annually for the services of the state Department of Public Safety including about state 20 troopers, who are backed by tribal police and a large private security force.
In letters to state government officials last summer, tribal Chairman Rodney Butler said the Pequots would no longer pay for troopers to be stationed in the casino, and said the tribe would pursue a lawsuit if an agreement was not reached with the governor's office.
Ultimately, the state agreed to reduce assessments for the Pequots as well as the Mohegan Tribe, which owns the nearby Mohegan Sun casino. Lawlor said the Mohegan police have the certifications needed to assume a larger role as soon as the paperwork is processed, but he said it would take longer for the Pequots' police.
Tom Olsen, a police officer for the neighboring town of Ledyard who worked for Pequot police in the 1990s, said tribal officers have struggled with many of the same issues for years.
"The administration of that police department has to answer in a different way that a town's department would. They are beholden to what the council might say because they hold the purse strings," he said. "The bottom line is there are different rules there."