Another Side to the Story

I’ve never considered myself one of those hard-hitting, gotcha-type journalists, nor have I ever inspired to be one.  I do, however, recognize and appreciate my role as a conduit for good information.  Sometimes, this is as simple as passing along fact-checked outdoor news items prepared by other organizations, or editing and publishing interesting or inspiring stories prepared by one of our columnists or some other talented outdoor writer.

Occasionally, however, I am contacted by a person or group wanting our readers — Indiana’s outdoor enthusiasts — to be made aware of certain information affecting them which others in positions of power or influence may not be as eager to have released.  Sometimes these people ask to remain anonymous in order to protect their jobs

Such an instance happened late last month.

Since then, I’ve heard more than a few concerns from several Indiana Conservation Officers (ICOs) — the brave men and women charged with investigating crimes and enforcing laws that protect our state’s wildlife and other natural and cultural resources — regarding their day-to-day job duties. The chief concern being voiced is that new and increasing emphasis is being placed by agency supervisors on non-wildlife law enforcement and crime prevention activities.

Specifically, officers are telling Indiana Outdoor News that their primary job duties are suffering because they are being expected to make a specified number of traffic stops and other non-conservation-related arrests or face what is known as progressive discipline.  I hear that drug investigations are also commanding an increasing amount of our ICOs’ time, further removing them from their core mission of preventing natural resource violations. “Quotas are in full swing”, one officer recently relayed to me.  “Traffic stops, vehicle searches for drugs and alcohol and subsequent arrests are expected or you aren’t doing your job and will pay the consequences”, the officer continued.

Additional sources from inside the agency tell me that every Lieutenant has been instructed to have their officers start stopping more cars and doing more traffic enforcement.  I’m also told that a recent letter sent to all districts suggests that progressive discipline will be used to increase arrests for officers not meeting their traffic quotas, although I have not been provided with a copy of such a letter.  According to ION sources, progressive discipline includes time off without pay.

I can understand how encouraging ICO’s to make a couple of traffic stops per month could be perceived as good practice for the officers.  Makes sense to me.  But some of the officers I spoke with believe revenue issues are at play.  I was told the DNR Division of Law Enforcement (DLE) gets $3 for each ticket issued to spend on training. If this revenue is driving how our ICO’s are being directed to spend their time, that’s a problem.

But these reports are troubling for a larger reason.

The officers I’ve heard from are concerned that the DLE  is continuing to move away from its core mission of investigating crimes and enforcing laws that protect our state’s natural resources — those traditional activities collectively referred to as conservation law.  Those are their words, not mine.

The Indiana DNR’s overall mission statement is to “Preserve, protect and promote Indiana’s cultural, historical and natural resources”.  So what then is the mission of the DNR’s DLE?  I always assumed it was conservation law, but when I looked, I couldn’t find a specific mission statement on their website.  Assuming conservation law is still the DLE’s mission, why  then have traffic citations, non-boating drug, alcohol and other types of criminal arrests allegedly become an officer evaluation requirement and now a priority?  I’d like to know because, personally, I can’t think of a good reason as to why our ICO’s should be routinely providing services that are already being provided by other state, county and municipal law enforcement agencies.

We need to remember that the DLE’s mision is broader than fish and wildlife, so they can’t spend all their time busting poachers.  Their work also encompasses important services like environmental and cultural resource protection, public safety and public outreach — again, all manner of law enforcement and crime prevention with respect to our natural, cultural and historic resources.  Our ICO’s can’t catch cave vandals or assist in rescuing someone who fell through the ice if they are busy doing activities already provided by traditional law enforcement agencies.

All of that said, sportsmen do pay for the majority of the work the DLE is doing.  Well over half of the DLE’s annual budget comes from dedicated Fish and Wildlife funds paid directly by hunters, fishermen and boaters.  So from the sportsman’s perspective, an ICO pulling over speeders on the highway is an ICO that isn’t crawling through the weeds busting poachers, patrolling boat ramps and waterways to curb the spread of invasive species, or investigating illegal wildlife trade.

On page 8 of this issue, you’ll find an unedited interview ION columnist Alan Garbers conducted with IDNR’s Dept. of Law Enforcement Director, Colonel Scotty Wilson.  It’s a good read, and Col. Wilson shares some interesting insights to specific changes and recent advancements made inside the DLE.  What you won’t see, however, is any discussion on an increased focus by the DLE on traffic stops and other non-conservation law enforcement activity as alleged and reported to us by many active ICOs.  To the contrary, Col. Wilson simply states that the ICO’s role “has not changed” and “will not change”.  These statements stand in stark contrast to those reported to us by active duty ICO’s. More detailed information is obviously needed.

Indiana Outdoor News would ike to hear from more active duty ICOs about the emphasis of their current training, what (if any) specific quotas exist, and the details of their assigned day-to-day activities.  Of course, we also welcome additional information, clarification and explanation from DNR decision-makers and DLE supervisors. Specifically, ION is interested in learning if there is emphasis being placed in training or officer instruction on traffic stops and other non-conservation law enforcement?  Is an ICO disciplined if they fail to make a specified number of automobile  traffic stops or non-boating drug or alcohol arrests?  Also, what percentage of an ICO’s time is actually spent on wildlife conservation patrol and investigation?  Is this percentage shrinking or is it remaining consistent?  Finally, how is this information reported to the feds for the reimbursement/distribution of the dedicated fish and wildlife funding which comprise a significant portion of the DLE’s annual budget?

I’d like to know both sides of the story, wouldn’t you?

 

As always, reader comments and opinions are welcomed via e-mail at submit@raghorn.com.