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Law enforcement is a 'dotted blue line' in Indian country

WASHINGTON - ''Police officers are sometimes called the thin blue line that protects the ordinary citizen from crime. The problem is that in Indian country, that's a dotted line. The thin blue line in Indian country is a dotted line. We need to fill in those gaps.''

They are due to both an ''accountability gap'' and a regular gulf in cooperation between tribal, state and federal jurisdictions, added Kevin Washburn, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Law School.

The accountability gap has grown out of a complicated law enforcement system that subordinates the territorial authority of tribes to secondary providers - the BIA and states - that have other priorities. ''Only the tribe has a primary concern for the Indian reservation,'' Washburn explained. ''So that's a fundamental problem, and we are not going to get anything corrected ultimately until we make sure the tribal governments have primacy on these issues. Anything else I think is a half solution or a partial solution.''

But in current circumstances, with law enforcement faltering on many reservations, partial solutions can be helpful if they're also immediate. As an immediate solution, Washburn offered the cross-deputization of tribal and state law officers. By authorizing tribal law officers to respond on off-reservation calls and state law officers to respond on the reservation, cross-deputization agreements can overcome the jurisdictional fine points that may tie the hands of responding officers otherwise.

''Now, you know, cops on the ground can work very well together. At higher levels, agencies somewhat collide; sometimes collide, especially when they are state versus federal versus tribal. We've got to work through those differences. We've got to get good cooperation in Indian country. And so if I leave here with one thought, it's that we've got to really facilitate greater cooperation between state and federal law enforcement, and tribal law enforcement needs to be primary on these issues.''

Thomas Heffelfinger, the former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota and chairman of the Department of Justice's subcommittee on Native American issues before joining a Minneapolis law firm, fully endorsed Washburn's thoughts on cooperation and went on to outline an incentive-based approach.

''There is no doubt that cooperative law enforcement is the most immediate and productive way to address a wide variety of crimes in Indian country. The DOJ can take leadership in that through the Office of Tribal Justice and through the U.S. attorneys, if properly motivated to do so. ... Ultimately it comes down to this. You've got a few sheriffs who may not be that interested in working with the adjoining reservation, or in the adjoining tribal police. There may not be the level of respect between the two ... pools of law enforcement officers. ... And yet, when you've got confusing jurisdictions, it's easy to hide behind that, say 'Well, if I'm not in charge, and I can't be in charge, then I don't want to get involved.'

''So what Congress could do about it is to incentivize those reluctant law enforcement partners who enter into these cooperative task forces, through funding. And funding may be limited solely to hardware like vehicles and radios, and overtime reimbursement. But that kind of funding in tight funding times, which we have in law enforcement generally, is the kind of incentivization that gets you past reluctance based on jurisdiction and lack of familiarity.''

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairing the June 21 Senate Committee on Indian Affairs oversight hearing on law enforcement in Indian country, seized upon these and other ideas to express a fighting hope that the money and political will can be found to craft a truly reformist bill that will go somewhere - i.e., all the way to the president's desk. Both Dorgan and his acting vice-chair on the committee, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, confessed to a certain battle fatigue over the omnipresence of problems that come before them from Indian country, often without equal time or attention to workable solutions. Bolstered by testimony at the oversight hearing, with its strong emphasis on law enforcement solutions from time-tested witnesses, Dorgan said the time has come to advance ''well beyond the hearing stages here in developing initiatives and pushing them.''