Crime and punishment: Law enforcement issues on Indian reservations

by Blanca Méndez
Mar 18, 2009

Blanca Méndez/MNS, Photos by Mónica Méndez

The Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas is a tight-knit community living near the U.S.-Mexico border

 Blanca Méndez/MNS

Ron Johnny explains why crime is not an issue on the Summit Lake Paiute Reservation 

WASHINGTON—The Cheyenne River Reservation in central South Dakota covers 1.4 million acres and is home to 8,000 members of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe. Despite rising crime rates, the tribal police force consists of only 11 officers, four sergeants, one lieutenant, and the chief of police.

“We need a staff at least three times that size,” said Lt. Chad Olson.

Understaffed police forces are common in Indian Country. A report by the National Institute of Justice states that the “typical [police] department serves an area the size of Delaware with no more than three officers.” Understaffed and overtaxed tribal courts are also common.

“It comes down to a lack of resources,” said John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians.

He said that most tribes do not have the money and other resources for officers, prosecutors, courts, detention facilities, and rehabilitation facilities.

Tribes may apply for grants from the federal government. – a step taken by the Cheyenne River Sioux. But the application process can take a long time. And not all tribes can afford to even establish a police department. Those without the adequate funds rely on the Bureau of Indian Affairs to assign officers to their reservations.

The lack of resources makes good policing difficult, and also hinders prosecution. In the State of Indian Nations address delivered in February, National Congress of American Indians President Joe Garcia said public safety was a priority. He emphasized the jurisdictional issues that make it hard to prosecute crime in Indian Country.

“U.S. Attorneys have the sole authority to prosecute felony crime on most reservations,” Garcia said. “Yet between 1997 and 2006, they declined to prosecute 65 percent of all reservation cases.”
Tribal courts are limited, having only authority to deal with misdemeanors. Cases involving both Indian and

Non-Indian parties are also outside the tribal court purview.

A report by Amnesty International found that Native American women and Alaska Native women are more than two and a half times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the U.S. in general, and that 86% of the reported crimes are committed by non-Native men. The report said the “jurisdictional maze” and lack of resources for law enforcement meant that many of these crimes were not prosecuted.

Cases denied by the Justice Department that end up in tribal courts can only be tried as misdemeanor cases. That means that even serious crimes, such as rape, may result in only up to one year in prison or a maximum $5,000 fine.

Vincent Knight, director of the National Tribal Justice Resource Center, said that most tribal courts are overtaxed, but he does not blame the Justice Department.

“They don’t deny cases out of spite,” he said. “They’re busy.”

Martin Jackley, U.S. Attorney for South Dakota, handles cases from nine Indian reservations, making 65 percent of his workload from Indian Country. There are several reasons why his office would decline to prosecute a case, he said, including lack of sufficient evidence, the crime was committed in viable defense, or it simply was not a federal.

The rise in crime on reservations has been attributed to alcohol and drug abuse, with alcohol playing a role in 80 percent of crimes. Olson sees this on the Cheyenne River Reservation. Knight said that methamphetamines abuse has also led to an increase in crime on reservations.

Alcohol and inhalant abuse is a problem on the Kickapoo reservation near Eagle Pass, Texas. That is why the community focuses on educating and protecting the youth. Jose Hernandez, who works at the reservation’s daycare center, said.

“I make sure the kids stay out of trouble.”

Since the establishment of a police force two years ago, crime rates on the Kickapoo Reservation have gone down. However, drug trafficking has risen.

The Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas owns five miles of land along the U.S.-Mexico border – an area that has become a gateway for smuggling drugs from Mexico into the United States, according to Esequiel Navejas, Kickapoo chief of police.

“We need more officers to help deal with the drug smuggling,” Navejas said. “It’s too big of an area for our 12 officers.”

Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-Texas, recognizes the burden of addressing the drug trafficking problem.

“I reinstated a $60 million federal grants program called Operation Stonegarden to help local border law enforcement agencies, including tribal law enforcement like the Kickapoo, to seek reimbursements from the federal government for expenses that should not have to fall on the shoulders of our local agencies, who already do so much for our communities,” he said

Joe Garcia said that the Indian community would do its part to help prevent crime, but he also stressed that action must be taken on the federal level. President Barack Obama has taken a step forward with his budget, which proposes an additional $100 million to be allocated to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for tribal law enforcement and education.

A tribal law and order bill, aimed at improving the prosecution of and response to crime in Indian Country, is also set to be reintroduced in the Senate this year.