Tribal officer in Idaho balances duty, family ties

LAPWAI, Idaho — Muddied by the static, a name and date of birth crackled over the radio.

Nez Perce Tribal Police officer Sam George smiled.

“Suspended license,” he said.

Checking an out-of-town car, he ends up knowing the cousin the driver is looking for and shows him out to their house.

Despite patrolling an area almost the size of Rhode Island, George knows just about everybody on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation.

Some people wave as he rolls by in his tribal cruiser, others duck out of sight. George knows he has a job to do, but for a 23-year-old tribal member, being a police officer for your own tribe means seeing some family and friends’ worst moments.

“It does get tough dealing with them,” he said. “I have some family members that hate me right now. I have a lot of family members who love me.”

George avoids the toxic dialogue on Facebook and hates the flak his wife catches. In addition to tensions with non-tribal members, members of the tribe itself have a traditionally strained relationship with law enforcement.

“They try to play that mind game with you, ‘You shouldn’t be arresting your own people, you should be helping us,”’ he said. “Well, I am helping you; I’m making you stop.”

George said he doesn’t pass off incidents with his family to other officers — he goes himself.

“I’m here to do my job, you know the consequences,” he said he tells them. “I’m not going to give you no breaks.”

One of the newest of now 18 tribal police officers, George is on the night shift.

He mostly patrols his hometown of Lapwai, keeps an eye on PK’s Place, the only bar in town, and double-checks every neighborhood.

The rest of George’s 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift is usually spent watching for drunk drivers returning from the casino on U.S. Highway 95, rumbling over the gravel roads linking tiny communities all over the prairie, and stopping hunters from spotlighting game.

All the while, George tries to take in the little things, beer cans on the side of the road that weren’t there an hour ago.

Big calls — shootings, chases — come on occasion, but in between it’s a farmer’s cows toppling a fence.

“We had to chase those dang things all over the hill,” he said.

Some nights he might have to drive the hour and a half to Kooskia, make an arrest and drive the perpetrator back to the Nez Perce County Jail.

George said tribal police work well with nearly all the surrounding counties. Their call letters on a shared dispatch system are only one number apart and George sees county deputies a couple times a patrol.

“I’ve assisted the county on a lot of calls and they’ve assisted me on a lot of calls,” he said. Frustratingly for George and other officers, their jurisdictions remain very much separate.

When he stopped a young man going 86 mph through Lapwai’s 45 mph zone, he had to let him go with a stern reprimand because he was nontribal and the county was swamped with calls.

He likes his job after a year with tribal police, but George originally wanted to follow other family members into the service and join the Marines.

That dream ended with just two months of high school left.

“I blew out my knee — playing football,” he said. “It kind of blew away my hopes and dreams.”

But George’s stepfather, a janitor, had taught him better than to give up.

“He’s always wanted me to do better than him, because he didn’t really have much in life,” he said.

So George moved to Chicago and graduated at the top of his union trade school class.

He worked construction for several years and met his wife in Wisconsin.

Life was good until the recession forced him to come home and start over again.

He was used to it, though.

George’s parents divorced when he was young. Then at age 13, his 17-year-old stepbrother, Samuel Olson, shot his father, Sam George Sr., in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun.

“I took it hard,” he said.

For a year, George walled off the world. Just as he was coming out of it, he watched a cousin drown near Kamiah. He couldn’t save him.

Faced with picking a new career after returning home to Lapwai from Wisconsin, George wanted to protect others from having to endure what he did.

“The next best step is I can be an officer,” he said. “Do this so I know what to do, so I can help people and help prevent those crimes.”

The good pay keeps his wife and their two kids happy and serving his own community makes him happy.

“I love my job,” George said.

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