US attorneys, tribal officials talk public safetyBISMARCK — Criminal prosecutions have soared on American Indian reservations in the Dakotas in the past year, though tribal officials told federal prosecutors Thursday that more needs to be done to quell crime.
By: James MacPherson, The Associated Press
BISMARCK — Criminal prosecutions have soared on American Indian reservations in the Dakotas in the past year, though tribal officials told federal prosecutors Thursday that more needs to be done to quell crime.
Fifteen U.S. attorneys from Alaska to New York, who make up the Department of Justice’s Native American Issues Subcommittee, met in Bismarck to discuss public safety issues with tribal leaders. U.S. attorney Brendan Johnson of South Dakota is chairman of the group; Timothy Purdon of North Dakota is vice-chairman.
Tribal officials from the Dakotas told the federal prosecutors that law enforcement funding and resources continue to lack in Indian Country.
Robert Shepherd, chairman of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe in northeastern South Dakota and southeastern North Dakota, said funding for public safety is an obligation the federal government has to the tribes.
“We can’t do anything until money is available,” Shepherd said.
The top federal prosecutors in the Dakotas said they have made crime in Indian Country a priority among issues.
Johnson said criminal prosecutions have increased 20 percent in the past year in Indian Country in South Dakota, while Purdon said the increase in prosecutions in North Dakota is up about 30 percent.
They said the numbers do not necessarily reflect a jump in crime, but an increase in cases taken up by federal prosecutors.
“We’re spending more time in Indian Country than we ever have and we’re spending more time with tribal leaders,” Johnson said. “When you do that, you usually get results.”
Purdon said he has assigned assistant U.S. attorneys to each of North Dakota’s reservations and will have them visit their assigned reservations monthly to work with tribal prosecutors.
Charles Murphy, Standing Rock tribal chairman, said the reservation’s police force is short-staffed and sometimes only one officer is on duty to patrol the 2.3 million-acre reservation that straddles North Dakota and South Dakota.
“The reason why is funding,” Murphy said. “We do not have enough men out there.”
Murphy said that a more than $5 million jail facility for juvenile offenders has been completed for about a year but has not yet opened because of red tape. He said officers often have to transport juvenile offenders to other jails in the Dakotas, taking time away from patrols.
Darren Cruzan, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Justice Services, said the lockup would be open by year’s end.
Standing Rock council member Sharon Two Bears said tribes have to compete for public safety funding and the application process is confusing. Housing often isn’t available on the reservations for police officers.
Merle St. Clair, chairman of North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, said the tribal court system on the reservation is in “chaos” and backlogged with cases.
Unlike some tribal courts, the judicial system on the Turtle Mountain reservation is run by its own members.
“I want the Justice Department to take over the court,” St. Clair said. “You cannot have a tribal judge hearing her own son’s case.”
Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Tex Hall said crime has increased with an exploding population on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, located within western North Dakota’s booming Oil Patch.
Hall estimated that about 10,000 people are working in the region, which has brought both prosperity and problems to the reservation.
“Our restaurants are full, our hotels are full and our jail is full,” Hall said. “There is a downside to it.”
Hall said the tribe lacks jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indians on the reservation, and that’s widely known and must change.
Non-tribal members are welcome on the reservation, he said. “But if you break a tribal law, or if you break a federal law, you will be arrested.”