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Interagency crime database to be created

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By Amy Forliti -- Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Sgt. Bill Blake gave his anti-gang presentation in Indian country so many times, he said, that his daughter knew it by heart. Yet it wasn't enough.

''Dad, you have to do more,'' he recalled her saying as they were driving home from a talk near the Fond du Lac reservation in 1999. He protested; as a father, a cop, an Indian and a lecturer, he was doing plenty.

Nearly four years later, 20-year-old Erica Rae Blake is dead - shot in the head at a party on a Wisconsin reservation where drugs, alcohol and gang members were all present. Though the death was ruled accidental, Blake is haunted by her words.

''What I've learned is doing nothing will get your family killed,'' he said. ''So if I were to sit back and still do nothing and lose somebody else that was close to me, I couldn't live with myself.''

Blake is now working to create a database - believed to be the first of its kind - that would accurately track crimes in Indian country and allow tribes to share information. The network would give tribes a tool to spot trends, as well as track people who commit a crime on one reservation and seek sanctuary elsewhere.

''We're never going to be able to address these problems and make things better in tribal communities when it comes to crime and quality of life unless we get the data,'' he said.

The project has been dubbed I-CARE, for Indian Crime Awareness Research and Evaluation. Blake and his partners will collect information from just a few tribes first, then expand the project to include all tribes in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The ultimate goal is a national database.

The data currently being gathered in Indian country are unreliable, law enforcement officials said.

''It's one of the real impediments to improving public safety in Indian country,'' said Tom Heffelfinger, a former U.S. attorney in Minnesota.

The FBI collects crime data each year, but many tribal communities don't participate. The BIA doesn't collect crime statistics.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics publishes a report on American Indians and crime, but the data is collected by a variety of methods including household surveying, which Blake and others said may not be precise. Michael Rand, the bureau's chief of victimization statistics, said the survey is an accurate reflection of peoples' experiences.

The National Institute of Justice also has published research, acknowledging that some tribes have difficulties in collecting crime data.

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Technology and money - too little of both - sometimes play a part in whether tribes collect and share crime data. A maze of overlapping jurisdictions hurts, too. For example, a crime on a Minnesota reservation may be handled by tribal police, a county sheriff, the BIA, the FBI or any combination of the above.

That means data is absorbed by different agencies and a true picture of crime on a reservation can be harder to get. Without good numbers, a tribe may have a hard time getting grant money for a particular problem, or might not make the right choices for spending its crime-fighting dollars, Blake said.

Such a database could improve the sharing of information between reservations and urban areas - which would come in handy when an offender is on the run.

''I think what's unique about the Indian community is there is always some connection to the reservation,'' said Larry Loonsfoot, another Minneapolis officer working with Blake on the database.

Indians who commit a crime in Minneapolis often flee to the reservation, and vice versa, said Loonsfoot. He said there is no real communication between the reservations and police in Minneapolis, so it can be hard to track those criminals down quickly.

''We need to bridge that communication gap where we can directly enforce both ends,'' Loonsfoot said. ''That will go, I think, a long way toward solving a lot of our issues.''

Both Blake and Loonsfoot are American Indian - Blake a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, Loonsfoot of Michigan's Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.

The I-CARE database is a progression of the work Blake has been doing. After his daughter died, he mourned for a year in the Ojibwe custom and then established the Native American Law Enforcement Summit, or NALES, which aims to prevent crime and violence by promoting cooperation between different agencies. Loonsfoot, who helps out with NALES, sees the I-CARE project as something that can get tangible results.

Blake and Loonsfoot expect to receive soon a two-year, $600,000 grant from the Department of Justice to start work on the I-CARE project, with the money going toward their salaries and other expenses.

Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan is trying to line up computers, clerical help and space for the project, likely in one of the city's heavily American Indian neighborhoods. He said the database has ''tremendous promise.''

''The connections between the tribal lands and the city of Minneapolis are very strong,'' Dolan said. ''You see the same people that are involved in crime here are involved in crime there. There is a very selfish reason to want to create this database and create this sharing of information.''

Ted Quasula, police chief of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, was intrigued by Blake's project. He said his department has a central database to track crimes, but they don't link their information with other jurisdictions.

''Most criminals could care less about jurisdiction boundaries; in fact, they enjoy it when jurisdictions fight,'' said Quasula, a member of the Hualapai Tribe. Sharing information is vital, he said.

''If you kind of hole up and you've got your own island, it's going to be detrimental in the long run,'' he said.