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Senator wants input from tribes on law enforcement legislation

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DENVER - The National Congress of American Indians' annual convention in November became the forum to discuss one of the most problematic issues of Indian country - law enforcement.

Insufficient funding results in a lack of adequate law enforcement officers, poor jail facilities and overworked courts.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, has produced a concept paper of ideas that were collected from input by tribal leaders with the intent of writing legislation that could change law enforcement in Indian country.

''This legislation is the highest priority for next year,'' said John Harte, San Felipe Pueblo, Dorgan staff member in charge of law enforcement.

''The directive I got was to come here and listen,'' Harte said. And listen he did.

To properly develop this legislation, Harte said Dorgan's office will work not only with tribal leaders, but with groups such as the police, sheriff's associations and anti-violence groups over the next few months.

There is an expectation for opposition to any bill from anti-Indian groups, Harte said; therefore, it will take at least 60 votes in the Senate to pass any bill such as this. A bill should be introduced in 2008, he said.

The bottom line to the improvement of law enforcement in Indian country, as many tribal leaders and police officials continually argue, is resources.

Nineteen years ago on the Cheyenne River Reservation, there were 15 law enforcement officers; today, there are still 15 officers. With the growth in both the population and the use of drugs and alcohol in that time period, a lack of sufficient enforcement results in an increase of crime and domestic violence.

Communication with other agencies is the key to proper law enforcement. Many tribal leaders came to the NCAI meeting with similar suggestions: rescind Public Law 280, which gives the states criminal and civil jurisdiction over tribal lands; cross-deputize officers; and start the conversation to repeal the Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that tribal courts do not have criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians, and allow tribes more authority to arrest non-Indian perpetrators on reservations while at the same time allowing tribal courts the authority to prosecute non-Indians.

Improving law enforcement in the face of increasing gang activity and rising methamphetamine use requires state and federal cooperation, but the technology may not be available on reservations and criminal codes are not compatible.

To attract more funding, data is necessary; and collecting that data will take more money. Officers on the ground must collect the data, according to Robert Hermann, chief of police for the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

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''Sometimes, a simple disturbing the peace call may take one officer three-quarters of his shift to gather the information,'' Hermann said.

Since the officers are centrally located, they have to travel great distances to answer calls - a drain on resources.

''There is a disconnect with the communities,'' Hermann said. ''Safe trails commandos come into a community and we have to pick up the pieces. It's one and one-half hours to a crime scene and it's contaminated when we get there.''

U.S. attorneys sometimes decline to prosecute cases because a case is not clean or properly developed. Declination of more than 70 percent of all cases from Indian country is the norm for all U.S. attorneys.

Tribes that are located on international borders are especially affected by federal authorities because Homeland Security or border police are not required to recognize tribal authority.

Tribal officers are the first responders to crime on reservations, and officials want to see tribal officers trained so they can make any arrest and act like federal officers.

The BIA requires all officers to be trained by the police academy in Artesia, N.M., which, for some regions, prevents some potential officers from attending the academy.

In North Dakota, an agreement to deputize tribal officers to function on state land was agreed to, but officers from the state must be trained at the BIA academy, according to the BIA regulations.

''We need to have a training facility in the northern Plains, but we are quite far apart on that issue [with the BIA],'' said Tom Disselhorst, attorney for the United Tribes of North Dakota.

In Artesia, the training takes place twice a year and some new candidates have to wait six to eight months before they can attend, according to Disselhorst.

Carl Venne, chairman of the Crow Tribe in Montana, brought up the responsibility of the federal government to provide for the Crow people.

''We have been promised that money. We pay taxes to the state and they provide nothing. If the government can pay three times the budget for African nations, they can provide for us - they have to by treaty. We are overlooked.

''We have to stick together as tribes. Everything they [the dominant society] have was ours. It's sad we have to go without and be the poorest of the poor when everything was ours.''