Improved community policing needed

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Tribal communities are generally served - and underserved - by tribal or BIA police and FBI agents. In Public Law 280 jurisdictions, law enforcement is carried out by combinations of tribal police, or county and state police. Not all tribal communities have tribal police. When they don't, external forces such as the county, state or BIA and FBI are the main enforcers of local, state and federal law.

Police departments have a checkered history in Indian country, often seen as enforcers of American law and concepts of justice over less-than-compliant reservation communities. Amnesty International's report, ''Maze of Injustice,'' illustrates the dangerous consequences of such jurisdictional complications.

Traditional Indian nations had their own ways of enforcing law and justice through family or clan agreements, by consensus and often by religious and moral codes. Police are a specialized body commissioned to enforce law and uphold peace and safety. Tribal communities are not averse to upholding public safety and protecting their citizens from harm. Many tribes with significant gaming revenues have invested in or are required to incorporate tribal, and sometimes county and state, policing to ensure public safety in their communities. Most tribal communities, however, prefer to administer their own tribal police, but often do not have enough financial resources or community trust to support current policing methods and organization.

Tribal community members have very distinct expectations of service from the police that patrol their communities. Research at the UCLA Native Nations Law and Policy Center indicates that nearly half of sampled respondents from 17 tribal communities believe that police in Indian country should adopt community policing priorities. But the policing that reservation residents are looking for is more intensive than that given by the popular Community Oriented Policing Services program.

Exactly what kind of relations and services do the people want from police? Tribal community policing includes a variety of community-building concepts: cooperation with tribal government, agreements among policing jurisdictions, better communication with the community, community education about law and policing, rehabilitation and restorative justice programs, cooperation with tribal police and tribal government, community safety and protection, culture and sensitivity training, community service and peacemaking. Tribal members wanted the police to get out of their cars and interact positively with community people, to get to know them on a personal basis. Respondents wanted officers to attend community events to encourage friendly relations with tribal members and above all, to better serve the interests and needs of the community. Tribal communities need police who know their community well, who have gained and earned the trust of community members.

Furthermore, 38 percent of reservation residents say police should concentrate on three major law and order issues - drug offenses, alcohol abuse and domestic violence. About 10 percent mentioned other policing needs: arresting law-breakers, increasing police resources, responding more quickly to calls, more training and equipment, better police equity, improved investigations, better patrolling, more attention to child abuse issues, and others.

Overall, nearly 88 percent of sampled reservation residents say that police should have strong community-based priorities and activities, and should concentrate on the crimes considered most serious in Indian country - drugs, alcohol, domestic and related crimes. Police are currently not well-trained or even motivated to engage in community relations in the ways that tribal communities want or need. The varying law enforcement agencies working in Indian country need to focus much more attention on helping develop community-based solutions to substance and domestic abuses that are far too prevalent in Indian communities to make any real difference.

Law enforcement officers should be active participants in Native community life. They must have knowledge and understanding of community family relations, religion, views of justice and work with the community to realize safe, culturally informed and just communities.