Rep. Herseth-Sandlin: Safety in Indian Country
The following is the opinion of Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-South Dakota).

Like many South Dakotans, I have been alarmed by some of the news about crime rates and safety on reservations in our state. In reports I’ve received from tribal leaders across South Dakota both during meetings in Washington and through my own travels back in the state, I’ve heard some harrowing examples of the conditions of fear and insecurity that families have to live under.

In June of 2007, at my request, the House Committee on Natural Resources held a hearing on the Lower Brule Reservation in south central South Dakota. Entitled The Needs and Challenges of Tribal Law Enforcement in Indian Reservations, the hearing brought together tribal leaders and law enforcement officials from eight tribes who testified for the need to improve government-to-government consultations between tribes and the federal agencies charged with supporting their law enforcement goals. Witnesses explained the need for more resources for officers, equipment, jails, and tribal courts.

One witness, Chairman Joseph Brings Plenty of the Cheyenne River Reservation, explained that on his reservation, there are an average of only three officers per shift to cover nineteen communities with 15,000 people and an area approximately the size of Connecticut. On this large, land-based reservation, each officer covers an average of 450 miles of road in one 8 hour shift. In 2006 alone, the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe’s police department responded to 11,488 calls for service and made 11,791 arrests. From my work with tribal communities in South Dakota and as a Member of the Committee on Natural Resources, I know that Cheyenne River is not an extreme case, but instead represents an all-too-familiar trend. The experiences and frustrations articulated by Chairman Brings Plenty resonate with tribal leaders across the United States.

Certainly, the easiest remedy to many of the law enforcement shortages that trouble Indian Country can only be fixed with greater financial resources. However, Congress can and should do more than simply appropriate funds when it comes to law enforcement in Indian Country. We have an important and fundamental oversight role to play in ensuring that the Bureau of Indian Affairs is delivering the services it is obligated to provide - transparently, efficiently, and according to the sovereign wishes of the tribes it serves. These responsibilities are particularly important when considering the scope of the problems faced by Indian communities, but also because of the special government to government relationship and obligations created by a history of treaties and the U.S. Constitution itself.

In light of the amount of crime in Indian Country along with the obligations set forth with these sovereign nations, I’m proud to announce that I’ve introduced The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2008 in the House to provide assistance for the challenges faced by tribal law enforcement. Although there is no simple or quick fix, the Tribal Law and Order Act tackles some of the thorny jurisdictional issues faced by law enforcement. It’s an important step in addressing the complex and broken system of law and order in Indian Country.

Specifically, the Tribal Law and Order Act would clarify the responsibilities of Federal, State, tribal, and local governments with respect to crimes committed in tribal communities, increase coordination and communication among Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement agencies, empower tribal governments with the authority, resources, and information necessary to safely and effectively provide for the public’s safety in tribal communities, reduce the prevalence of violent crime in tribal communities and combat violence against women, address and prevent drug trafficking and reduce rates of alcohol and drug addiction in Indian country, and increase and standardize the collection of criminal data and the sharing of criminal history information among Federal, State, and tribal officials responsible for responding to and investigating crimes in tribal communities.

Native American families – like every other family in the United States - deserve to raise their children in a safe environment supported by robust law enforcement services with adequate resources and facilities. Ultimately, I believe that this comprehensive bill is an important and necessary step towards our shared goal of making Indian Country a safer place to be.

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Clock ticks on Indian Country law reform bill (7/24)
NPR: Bill seeks to improve Indian law and order (7/24)
Senators to unveil law and order reform bill (7/23)
Editorial: Senate's $2B a good first step for tribes (7/18)
Senate approves $2B in funding for Indian Country (7/17)
Senate weighs $2B in funding for Indian Country (7/15)