Justice to Boost Effort to Combat Tribal Crime

Mary Clare Jalonick, Pioneer Press (St. Paul), August 20, 2009

On just one day this year on the Red Lake reservation in northern Minnesota, police and investigators received emergency calls about one suicide, one murder, three stabbings, two shootings and multiple incidents of domestic violence.

Federal statistics have shown American Indians are the victims of violent crime at more than twice the national rate, with incidence of homicide and domestic violence much higher than the national average.

The Obama administration was expected to announce today a new effort to combat crime on reservations, where shortages of law enforcement personnel and federal dollars have led to lawless environments.

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Increased federal dollars will probably also be part of the equation, Ogden [Deputy Attorney General David Ogden] said.

Reports of violence on reservations–especially the poorest and most remote–are constant. Red Lake has certainly known its share of crimes. In 2005, a 16-year-old there killed seven people at his school and two people on the reservation.

Gang activity has risen in tribes across the country as drug traffickers have taken advantage of gaps in law enforcement.

Still, little is known about what exactly is happening on reservations or how the incidents are handled. Data has been sparse for decades and crime surveys rarely separate out tribal statistics. Ogden says better data collection is one of the department’s priorities.

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The issue of jurisdiction has also long been an obstacle. The Justice Department shares responsibility for Indian crime with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is part of the Department of Interior, and with state and tribal governments. Jurisdiction over a crime can vary by state, by the severity of the crime and by whether the victim and suspect are Indian or non-Indian.

While the Bureau of Indian Affairs polices reservations, the Justice Department’s role involves investigating and prosecuting crimes that fall under federal jurisdiction and administering grant programs designed to reduce crime on reservations.

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Ogden says the government has failed to provide adequate resources and basic protections.

“All kinds of crime flourish in that environment,” he said. “There hasn’t been enough sustained leadership attention.”

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