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U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon: Fighting for Tribal Justice

U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon, of North Dakota, is using his short time in service to establish himself as a major player in the tribal justice arena. Nominated to his position by President Barack Obama in February 2010, he was confirmed by the Senate in August 2010. He previously served on the Democratic National Committee and was a lawyer at several major North Dakota firms since the early 1990s.

Given the many reservations in his state, he sees his position as a natural one from which to advocate for improved tribal law, order, and, most of all, safety, saying that his experiences getting to know and meeting face-to-face with Indians have been unforgettable. While those real-life connections matter most, one fact-based number strikes him hardest: “The crime statistic for Indian country that particularly stands out to me is the fact that a Native American female baby has a one-in-three chance of being sexually assaulted in her lifetime,” says Purdon, while discussing his feelings for the Indian people he serves. “I think about that statistic when I go to a powwow and see a group of three seven-year-old jingle dancers walk out into the sunlight to begin their dance, or when I see an extended Native family of grandmother, mother, and daughter pumping gas at a convenience store.”

In an exclusive interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, Purdon expanded on multi-pronged aim to improve tribal justice.

Indian Country Today Media Network: You held a Native American-focused Tribal Listening Conference in March at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, N.D. How did it come about?

Tim Purdon: In February of 2010 the Deputy Attorney General’s Office instructed all U.S. Attorneys’ Offices having Indian country jurisdiction to develop an operations plan to improve public safety for tribal communities within their respective districts. Following my swearing in on August 24, 2010, my office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of North Dakota, began this process. The Tribal Listening Conference held on March 16, 2011, at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota, was a key step in the process of gathering information important to the development of our district’s plan. This plan will outline the efforts the U.S. Attorney’s Office will take, in operation with tribal, state, and federal law enforcement partners, to address the public safety challenges facing the tribes in North Dakota.

Initially, I met with several tribes on the reservations. These included the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold. Joined by others from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I consulted with tribal council members, tribal law enforcement, Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement, tribal social services, tribal court judges and staff, and tribal detention officials. The Tribal Listening Conference was the next key step in our consultation process.

Did you learn anything specific from tribal leaders that you maybe didn’t know before?

There was great value in visiting the reservations personally. My take-away was that there is a need for improved communication between the North Dakota U.S. Attorney’s Office and the tribes. Additionally, my concern about public safety in tribal communities was confirmed. Violent crimes happen too often, domestic violence happens too often, and children are offended against too often on the reservations in North Dakota. What has become apparent is that effective communication will help us establish the partnerships necessary to address these substantive public safety issues.

You've said in the past that you have long been interested in Indian issues. Any specific reasons?

When I moved back home to North Dakota in 1994 to clerk for U.S. District Judge Bruce Van Sickle, I had the opportunity to visit a reservation community for the first time. I will never forget that visit to Cannonball, North Dakota, a tribal community located on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. I remember thinking, ‘How is it possible that, in the United States of America, U.S. citizens must live in such isolation, poverty, and hopelessness?’ That experience has stayed with me over the years.

Further, when I was a lawyer in private practice, I represented many, many Native Americans in federal court as a court-appointed indigent defense attorney. I spent considerable time on the reservations while defending these cases, meeting with my clients and their families and getting to know about their lives. Finally, I have spent a lot of time over a number of years hunting grouse and pheasant on the Fort Berthold Reservation. As a result, I have gotten to know many tribal members in the White Shield, North Dakota, area. Talking to these folks over coffee or pick-up window to pick-up window has allowed me to learn more about the public safety issues they face every day.

These experiences all helped me see the need for change in tribal communities. Frankly, it was these experiences that led me to seek the position of U.S. Attorney in North Dakota. I saw the U.S. Attorney position as one that could be used to help address the public safety issues on the reservations in North Dakota.

As a U.S. Attorney, why do you think it's important to pay heightened attention to Indian issues?

Historically, the North Dakota U.S. Attorney’s Office has been among the top five for having the greatest number of Indian country violent crime referrals for prosecution. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in North Dakota has a very small office—only 17 Assistant United States Attorneys. Given these numbers, a focus on trying to improve public safety on North Dakota’s reservations is a natural fit.

Can increased attention from one U.S. Attorney really have an impact on facilitating improved tribal justice?

My hope is that it will. First, in North Dakota we have an outstanding team of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (AUSAs) and Victim-Witness Coordinators working on prosecuting violent crimes in tribal communities. These dedicated and highly skilled men and women do a great job effectively enforcing federal criminal laws against violent offenders on the reservations. To complement our strong prosecution efforts, we hope to dedicate additional resources to the ‘prevention’ piece of the puzzle. Our new operations plan will include a program of community prosecution in which an individual AUSA, who is assigned to a specific reservation, visits the assigned reservation several times a year. During these visits the AUSA will put an emphasis on communicating with our tribal law enforcement partners and may engage in a number of other activities, possibly including convening multi-disciplinary team meetings; convening child protection team meetings; reviewing and coordinating case investigations with BIA, tribal, and FBI Law Enforcement; reviewing and coordinating charging decisions with tribal prosecutors; providing training to BIA, tribal, and county law enforcement; and providing training or support to the tribal courts.

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Additionally, we are hopeful the AUSAs will develop other crime-prevention initiatives, such as speaking at local schools or reaching out to reservation youth and elders in other ways. These visits will increase consultation and communication between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the tribes.

Are other U.S. Attorney taking similar actions on Indian justice issues?

Our office is not alone in seeking to improve public safety in Indian country. U.S. Attorneys across the country are implementing new Operations Plans tailored to their districts. The strategy outlined above borrows heavily from the work of many of my colleges and especially from the “Community Prosecution Strategy” developed by South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson. In South Dakota the Department of Justice has funded a pilot project that allows an AUSA from South Dakota to go to work three or four days a week on the Pine Ridge Reservation. We lack the resources to replicate this program exactly in North Dakota, but our strategy is similar.

Isn’t it possible that your job representing the U.S. government could sometimes come in conflict, or at least be at odds, with what tribal citizens might like to see happen on certain law-and-order issues? What do you do in those instances?

Yes, there will be occasions when, consistent with my oath of office, I will have to represent my client, the United States of America, in a way that is at odds with some citizen constituency, tribal or otherwise. In those situations I will do what I have always done: zealously represent my client’s interests. I am sure that over my time as U.S. Attorney not every tribal council member or every tribal member will agree with every action I take. Hopefully, however, we can agree that the problems of public safety on the reservations are important and that we can try and reach common ground and work together to address them.

You've said in the past that you'd like to see the FBI double the number of agents working on Indian cases, but the cost would be burdensome. Realistically, what can be done about that?

The comment about the FBI was one made very early in my tenure and before my visits to many of the reservations in North Dakota. I now feel, after visiting the reservations and consulting with tribal officials, that the more important issue is the under-staffing of the BIA police departments on North Dakota’s reservations. It is the BIA patrol officers and criminal investigators who are in the best position to do community policing on the reservations. Community policing occurs when law enforcement officers live and work in their communities. My hope now is for fully staffed BIA police departments in North Dakota. Given this, we are very excited about some of the initiatives that the new BIA Office of Justice Services Deputy Bureau Director Darren Cruzan has implemented. Specifically, in mid-March Deputy Director Cruzan and his staff held a “job fair” at Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation and, in two days, made 54 conditional job offers for new BIA law enforcement officers. These sorts of innovative hiring practices by our partners at BIA can help us reach the goal of fully staffed BIA police departments.

How does the Tribal Law and Order Act, signed into law last year, impact your job? What are the challenges of getting that law up and running?

An exciting provision of the Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) is the one that will grant tribal courts additional sentencing authority if they can meet certain due process requirements. Hopefully, tribes will want to use this new power and will improve tribal court processes to allow them to do so. Having high-functioning tribal courts is a necessity to improving public safety on the reservations. Until misdemeanor tribal offenses are adjudicated swiftly and fairly on a routine basis in all our tribal courts, quality of life on the reservations will suffer. Currently, the tribal court system on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is very high functioning and, as a result, progress on public safety issues is being made there. We would like to see this progress replicated on all the reservations in North Dakota.

Additionally, as the information we have gathered in our visits to the reservations and at the tribal listening conference shows, the provisions of TLOA requiring increased coordination with appropriate tribal law enforcement and justice officials on the status of criminal investigations are very important. By physically getting our AUSAs to the reservation on a routine basis to consult with tribal law enforcement on open investigations and to coordinate with tribal prosecutors on the status of investigations, charging decisions, and use of evidence relevant to tribal charges, we intend to meet TLOA’s requirements in that regard.

What is the incarceration rate of Indians in your region? Are there any crime statistics in Indian country in your region that particularly stand out to you?

The crime statistic for Indian country that particularly stands out to me is the fact that a Native American female baby has a one-in-three chance of being sexually assaulted in her lifetime. I think about that statistic when I go to a powwow and see a group of three seven-year-old jingle dancers walk out into the sunlight to begin their dance, or when I see an extended Native family of grandmother, mother, and daughter pumping gas at a convenience store. I have a mother, a sister, and a wife. The three women in my family are not subject to this horrific statistic. The injustice of the fact that Native women are subject to this statistic is deeply offensive to me and should be to every American. I am very fortunate that my current position as U.S. Attorney puts me in a position to try and do something about this injustice.

How can Indians help you do your job in such a way that Native justice prevails?

Improving public safety in tribal communities is a partnership. The North Dakota U.S. Attorney’s Office stands willing to do more to impact the problem. We need our tribal partners to do more, as well. We need highly independent tribal courts in North Dakota. The rule of law must apply in tribal courts in order to ensure that misdemeanor tribal offenses are swiftly and fairly adjudicated. Only a truly independent tribal judiciary can ensure that the rule of law prevails on the reservation.

We also need increased support from tribes for initiatives that put more BIA personnel on the reservations. With additional officers come additional resources to combat crimes like domestic abuse and sexual assault. Our hope is that the tribes would welcome these resources. Finally, we need increased tribal support for agreements that let us bring public safety resources from the State of North Dakota to bear on the reservations as well. The public safety issues in North Dakota are not a Standing Rock problem or a Turtle Mountain problem, they are a North Dakota problem. As such, we are reaching out to state and county law enforcement and asking them to join us in a renewed focus on these issues. We hope the tribes will support these efforts and will be open to partnership with state and county law enforcement entities as well.

Finally, at the end of your service, how will you measure whether you really improved tribal justice in a meaningful way?

Finding effective metrics to measure success in increasing public safety in any community is a difficult challenge. While difficult to measure, our goal is to improve public safety across the board so that all tribal members feel safe in their communities. It will be measured, in part, by an elder living in Porcupine or White Shield or Tokio or Belcourt who will feel safe enough to routinely enjoy a summer Saturday night sitting on her front porch, rather than isolated inside her home out of fear of violent crime. Personally, I can only directly control two things: the resource allocation of the North Dakota U.S. Attorney’s Office and how hard we work on the issue of improving public safety in tribal communities. At the end of my service, I will judge my term as U.S. Attorney on those two criteria.