In View Commentary: Implementing a BWC Program in a Tribal Community

In View Commentary: Implementing a BWC Program in a Tribal Community

Samantha Rhinerson, CNA Body-Worn Camera Training and Technical Assistance Analyst and Resource Coordinator

The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) Body-Worn Camera (BWC) Policy and Implementation Program (PIP) has awarded grants to seven tribal communities across the United States from 2015 through 2018, totaling just over $589,000. Grantee departments have used the funds to purchase approximately 405 BWCs. This In View spotlights the experience of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians Tribal Police Department (LTBB PD), Michigan.  The LTBB PD is a federally recognized Indian tribe that received a FY 2016 BJA BWC PIP grant. LTBB serves approximately 4,600 citizens living in two counties—Charlevoix and Emmet counties. LTBB PD patrols over all 337 square miles of the reservation, which includes 103 square miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, several major highways, the Great Lakes Waterway, and international boundaries. LTBB PD currently employs 15 sworn officers and has an average of 2,300 citizen contacts and 3,600 calls for service each year.

Figure 1: Tribal BJA Award Recipients

LTBB PD decided to implement BWCs as a proactive response to monitor interactions between police officers and the public. BWCs give LTBB PD the opportunity to view footage of incidents that result in use of force or citizen complaints and provides visual evidence of both police and citizen behavior. The BWCs help ensure that the department’s interactions with the public are nonbiased. Prior to applying for the BJA BWC PIP grant, LTBB had to take several special considerations into account. Before applying to the grant, LTBB had to receive Tribal Council approval for both the grant and the ability to deploy BWCs if awarded the grant. 

The Tribal Council is housed within the Legislative Branch of the Tribal Government and consists of nine individuals considered to be respected members of the community. The Tribal Council meets on a biweekly basis and includes a Legislative Leader, Secretary, Treasurer, and Council members. The council’s primary goals are to represent the Tribal membership by acknowledging the cultural values of wisdom, love, respect, bravery, honesty, humility, and truth, and exhibiting the highest level of integrity and fairness while representing the needs of the entire tribe. The Tribal Council also strengthens government relations by enacting legislation further protecting Tribal Sovereignty. [1]

After receiving approval from the Tribal Council, LTBB faced another challenge: the department had to write the grant and the BWC policy for both the police department and the LTBB Natural Resources Department (NRD). LTBB partnered with the NRD to deploy BWCs to ensure that all law enforcement officials within the reservation and surrounding areas were equipped with BWCs. LTBB had to take each agency’s roles and responsibilities into consideration during BWC implementation planning. To ensure the successful planning and implementation of the BWC program, LTBB formed a working group to develop the appropriate BWC policy and spearhead implementation. This group consisted of the LTBB PD Police Chief, Police Sergeant, Law Enforcement Office Manager, LTBB NRD Chief Conservation Officers, Natural Resources Director, and LTBB Prosecutor. Since the tribe is a sovereign nation, it was critical that the prosecutor be involved in the working group. In addition, LTBB also sought input from its General Counsel. County law enforcement representatives from neighboring agencies were also invited to the working group meetings to compare agency policies and procedures, review differences, and reconcile differences to the extent possible.  All of these planning efforts strengthened the foundation of LTBB’s BWC program. 

Policy Development
Before drafting the BWC policy, LTBB reviewed Bureau of Indian Affairs-Office of Justice Services Law Enforcement Handbook policies, the Police Executive Research Forum Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program report, and several other agency policies. While developing the BWC policy, LTBB had to be mindful of several unique considerations. The first was drafting a policy for two agencies that have very different roles and responsibilities. The LTBB PD offers standard police department services and handles calls for service; however, the NRD handles conservation violations, such as hunting and fishing violations. LTBB ensured that the policy was comprehensive for both departments without being overly lengthy or confusing. The BWC policy had to follow not only Michigan state laws, but also tribal and federal laws, which differ in their levels of restrictions. For example, tribal law states that only tribal members are allowed to view BWC footage, while Michigan state law allows for BWC footage to be released and viewed by the public, when appropriate. That is not the case for the LTBB PD. BWC footage is often not available for the tribal public to view; it has to be redacted prior to public release.  Once the policy was developed, LTBB had to receive legal and Tribal Council approval before sharing the BWC policy with BJA for review. Dawn Parkey, LTBB Office Manager, noted that they received a wealth of support and assistance from their BWC TTA team; she encourages all grantees to work closely with their TTA teams during policy development. 

“I really credit our TTA team with helping us to get everything in mind with our policy so that we were able to cover all of the things that our scorecard asked for.” –Dawn Parkey, LTBB Office Manager

Community Education and Dissemination 
LTBB prioritized educating the community on BWC program implementation and policy. This included releasing articles in the LTBB Tribal newsletter, The Odawa Trails; posting the articles on LTBB websites and at LTBB Justice and NRD buildings; and hosting an LTBB Community Meeting. Information dissemination can be challenging if a population resides in a more rural area or if a jurisdiction covers a large area. LTBB officers are cross-deputized with two local counties, so it was important that this education extend outside the reservation. Because LTBB prioritized community education, they received positive feedback from both tribal and nontribal community members. 

Downstream Criminal Justice Coordination
The most significant difference between a Tribal BWC program and a municipal law enforcement BWC program is downstream coordination with other criminal justice entities. LTBB coordinates BWC footage release with three different levels of prosecutorial agencies: the US Attorney’s Office, county prosecutor offices, and tribal prosecutors. If an individual commits a federal crime, he or she is prosecuted by the US Attorney’s Office. Local and state crimes are prosecuted through the nearest county agency if the individual is a nontribal member or through the tribal court if they are a tribal native. The only non-native crimes that can be prosecuted within the tribal court are those that violate reservation traffic  statutes or the Violence Against Women Act. All agencies work together to ensure that the crime is prosecuted in the appropriate venue. 

While tribal communities need to take into account several special considerations when implementing a BWC program, there are also similarities between these agencies and municipal law enforcement agencies. Every agency should be methodical, deliberate, and collaborative when drafting a BWC policy. Forming a working group and collaborating with all partner agencies from the outset of the BWC program will help ensure successful program implementation. Tribal agencies should also prioritize educating their communities and partners about BWC programs, limitations, and capabilities. Additional partners outside of typical municipal law enforcement partners may include a Tribal Council, Chairperson, and multiple prosecutorial offices. LTBB encourages agencies to make use of TTA teams and the resources available on the BWCTTA website.  Information about BWC technology is also available on the Department of Justice (DOJ) BWC Toolkit. Tribal agencies can find a broader variety of resources and assistance on the DOJ Tribal Justice and Safety website. For any questions or to learn more about the experiences of other BWC PIP tribal agencies, please reach out to

[1] Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. 2018. “Tribal Council Legislative Office”. Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians Official Site. Retrieved from:


Samantha Rhinerson is a CNA Research Specialist with a background in criminal justice, forensic and legal psychology, social psychology research, and training and technical assistance. Ms. Rhinerson is the training and technical assistance resource coordinator for BWC TTA. She directs the management of resources for police departments and develops reports and memos for best practice solutions. She helps coordinate webinars, In View Commentaries, and resource development. Ms. Rhinerson works with over 20 subject matter experts in conducting regular status calls and provides TTA tracking support for the client. She also ensures that all requirements for the grant program are met in a timely manner. She works with the project manager to develop resources on a national scale.

This project was supported by Grant No. 2015-DE-BX-K002 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justiceand Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART Office. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.