WASHINGTON - New draft legislation to address law enforcement problems in Indian country got a hopeful hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs June 19, but the overwhelming weight of the testimony turned out to be that more resources are the sine qua non, the ''without this, nothing,'' of lasting reform in law and order for Indian country.
Walter Lamar, the Blackfeet and Wichita former FBI agent and founder of the Lamar Associates security consultancy in Washington and Albuquerque, N.M., said the committee's efforts are honorable and worthy of support. But he added that the basic tool kit for effective law enforcement on reservations already exists ''in the hands of the government agencies,'' though without proper funding - ever.
''It seems every two or three years there is a scathing report decrying the state of Indian country public safety. Over and over the symptoms of a broken system are reiterated, yet we remain where we were yesterday.''
After a brief account of historical reports on the desperate straits of law enforcement in Indian country, Lamar quoted a congressional exchange following severe budget cuts in the 1940s. Sen. J Chandler Gurney of South Dakota said Indians can't have a dance at night for fear of public safety, and Indian Commissioner John R. Nichols responded that Gurney's in-state problems were Indian country's at large. '''This is the lowest point in the history of law and order,''' Lamar quoted.
''Amazing how this sounds so very familiar. Was it indeed the lowest point?'' he asked.
Acknowledging the smorgasbord of challenges for law enforcement in Indian country, he said they usually boil down to funding and resources.
''As an example, when I was deputy director at BIA law enforcement more than four years ago, we could count our headquarters staff on two hands. Little has changed since then. How can they possibly be expected to perform the monumental task at hand with less staff than it takes to run a fast food restaurant? Without attendant funding, the provisions of the bill will go unanswered.''
Ron His Horse Is Thunder, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (the reservation straddles both Dakotas), testified to what adequate resources can do for law enforcement. Responding to Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., he regretted that other reservations have displaced Standing Rock as the home of Indian country's highest crime rate.
''Because again, I live on a reservation where that crime rate was No. 1; and not that our crime rate has been reduced all that much, if any, before this surge, but rather, again, those tribes' crime rates have surged for them.''
The surge he referred to is Operation Dakota Peacekeepers, a special BIA law enforcement team of 20 officers in three groups, each group on duty around the clock for 30 days apiece. They are assigned to supplement the nine regular BIA officers on the vast Standing Rock lands.
''And it has made a world of difference on our reservation,'' His Horse Is Thunder said.
But Pat Ragsdale, director of the Office of Justice Services for Indian Affairs within Interior, testified that for reasons of funding, it will be difficult to sustain the surge beyond the three months of the separate 20-officer rotations. That led His Horse Is Thunder to voice another concern. ''What happens after three months? Do the criminals come back?''
He added that community watch groups are getting started on the reservation in hopes of maintaining the gains in law and order initiated by the Dakota Peacekeepers.
He identified other resource problems facing law and order in Indian country: remote locations and the lower salaries that go with them, and a housing shortage that forces potential officers to choose between family needs and the job.
(Continued in part two)