WASHINGTON - Statistics say a lot sometimes, as proved by W. Patrick Ragsdale at a May 17 hearing on law enforcement in Indian country before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Ragsdale, of the BIA, said that between BIA-operated law enforcement programs and programs operated by tribes with federal funding, 48 percent are staffed to the national average of 2.6 officers per 100,000 non-metropolitan inhabitants.
More than half of Indian law enforcement operations are understaffed, then, while providing services to a population Ragsdale described as being largely under the age of 25, with high unemployment rates and a lack of municipal infrastructure. Tribal lands are often in remote settings, and many are in proximity to the Mexico or Canada borders - ''the perfect targets for drug trafficking and other smuggling operations.''
Altogether, as outlined by a recent spate of reports and news articles, the combination of a shortfall in resources and enabling conditions on the ground add up to ''extreme shortcomings of the criminal justice systems in Indian country,'' Ragsdale testified in writing.
''For many of the 1.6 million citizens who live on or near Indian reservations, life has become much more violent.''
Law enforcement has also become more dangerous. ''On many reservations, there is no 24-hour police coverage. Police officers often patrol alone and respond alone to both misdemeanor and felony calls. Our police officers are placed in great danger because backup is sometimes miles and hours away, if available at all,'' Ragsdale added.
Women stand out as particular victims of violence on reservations. ''Sexual assaults are a recognized problem on most reservations,'' Matthew H. Mead, U.S. Attorney for Wyoming, stated.
Among the corrective measures now under way, Mead identified two studies authorized by the Violence Against Women Act of 2005, which ''has a chapter solely devoted to safety for Indian women.'' The studies, one by the National Institute of Justice and one by the Department of Health and Human Services, are called for within two years of VAWA's enactment. Between them, the studies will establish baseline data on domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking and murder of American Indian and Alaska Native women, as well as projecting their incidence of injury and homicide from these crimes and estimating the resultant cost of health care treatment.
''It is the hope of those working to combat violence against Indian women that these two studies will provide a clearer picture of how these crimes affect all Native women, those living on a reservation, or in a remote village, as well as those women living in an urban environment,'' Mead stated.
Other assistance has come from Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's Safe Indian Communities Initiative, a part of President George W. Bush's proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2008. By providing $5 million for hiring additional law enforcement officers, $5 million for staffing up at Indian detention facilities and $6 million for specialized drug enforcement training of officers and public awareness campaigns against methamphetamine use, Ragsdale said the secretary's initiative will bring total BIA funding of Indian law enforcement to $233.8 million.
Mead and Scott Burns, deputy director for state, local and tribal affairs in the Office of Drug Control Policy, testified to further progress in the cross-commissioning of officers to overcome jurisdictional issues, and in the collaboration of tribal, federal, state and local authorities against violent crime.
Mead added that the challenges to law enforcement in Indian country remain unique and significant. ''Investigations can be more difficult because the setting involves tightly knit communities ... Indian family members who may be witnesses to illegal activities are often under intense pressure not to cooperate with authorities. Those who fall victim to crimes, or become witnesses to crime, like sexual assaults, are sometimes too afraid or embarrassed to report crimes in a timely fashion. ... There is also the desire to handle problems internally within the tribes.''