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Tribes see grants to fight crime as step in right direction

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Tribes see grants to fight crime as step in right direction
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A trail passes through a graveyard on the Fort Apache Reservation where for at least two years, girls were confronted, led away and sexually assaulted by a man posing as a police officer.
By Mark Henle, The Arizona Republic
A trail passes through a graveyard on the Fort Apache Reservation where for at least two years, girls were confronted, led away and sexually assaulted by a man posing as a police officer.
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One expert after another stepped up to attack the relentless violence that envelopes America's Indian reservations and challenge the Obama administration to do something about it at a national symposium this summer.

Federal agents, tribal police, judges, researchers and prosecutors at the University of New Mexico School of Law symposium recited a litany of Department of Justice statistics that show, for example, that Native American women suffer from violent crime at a rate 2½ times the national average.

This week, the Department of Justice announced $127 million in grants aimed at crime and justice on reservations, a move that has some Native Americans guardedly optimistic.

"I see them moving a little bit more to provide resources and listening more to Native nations," says Hallie Bongar White, a Native American justice advocate and executive director of the Southwest Center for Law and Policy in Tucson.


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Everett Little Whiteman, public safety director for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, was among those making the case for more crime resources at the symposium. Native American victimization, he says, is rampant because crimes go unsolved and perpetrators unpunished in a broken system.


The list of causes, he say, begins with entrenched poverty, substance abuse and unemployment. But it proliferates amid a justice system hampered by confusing jurisdictions, inadequate training and equipment, low pay and distrust between federal and tribal investigators.

"The problem is that crimes are not investigated thoroughly, he says. "We need money. That's the bottom line."

"The silent victims are the children," adds Donna O'Brien, chief of detectives for the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma. "They're the ones we have to protect."

Waiting for action

America's 464 recognized tribes have been looking for the Obama administration to fulfill its promise to repair the broken justice system on reservations, says Ted Quasula, a Hualapai and former director of law enforcement for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Quasula, Little Whiteman and others say they are hopeful about some other steps they've seen from the White House:

•In July, President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, meant to increase authority of Indian police and allow Native courts to issue felony sentences of up to three years.

Among other things, the law obliges federal agents and attorneys to share evidence with their tribal counterparts.

•Obama has appointed Native Americans — such as Larry EchoHawk, assistant secretary for Indian affairs — to key posts and ordered Cabinet secretaries to conduct "listening sessions" with tribal leaders.

•In January, Obama issued a mandate for U.S. attorneys to meet with tribal leaders and develop plans for fighting crime on reservations. The order provided 35 additional prosecutors for Native American crime, and a dozen new victim specialists.

An unsolved rape spree on Arizona's Fort Apache Reservation illustrates what U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, calls a law enforcement "crisis."

According to U.S. District Court records in Phoenix and Bureau of Indian Affairs records obtained by The Arizona Republic through a federal lawsuit against the agency: A rapist posing as a police officer preyed on Apache teenagers for nearly two years before agents warned the town of Whiteriver and assigned a task force. Investigators arrested two men, declared the case solved and received cash commendations. The suspects were subsequently exonerated and are suing the federal government for false arrest. The real perpetrator got away with as many as 17 sexual assaults.

'Botched' system

There is no single justice system for Native Americans. Major felonies are automatically federal matters, as are all crimes where the victim or suspect is non-Indian. Some tribes operate their own police departments under compacts with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Others rely on federal agents or state peace officers.

Ronet Bachman, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware who analyzed Indian rape data for the Justice Department two years ago, says poor training, jurisdictional issues, a lack of resources, mismanagement, complacency and incompetence are all issues.

"It is botched because of all those things," he says

Dennis Burke, U.S. attorney for Arizona, says the state's 22 Native American tribes are beginning to see changes, with more agents and prosecutors assigned to go after reservation criminals.

"When I came into this office, there were these cases literally sitting there for months and months without a decision," Burke says. In December, three months after his appointment, Burke imposed a new policy: Within 30 days of a criminal referral in tribal communities, his office must decide whether to reject a case, press charges or request further investigation.

Kim Pound, former police chief at the Fort Apache Reservation, remains skeptical. "Stuff that happens in Indian country, if it occurred in any town or city of this country, people would be up in arms," Pound says.

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