VIEWPOINT: Reservations need more police

BISMARCK -- Some people have asked what North Dakota tribal leaders talked about when they met recently with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on his visit to North Dakota. The main subject was the same one we've been dealing with for years: the cri...

BISMARCK -- Some people have asked what North Dakota tribal leaders talked about when they met recently with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on his visit to North Dakota. The main subject was the same one we've been dealing with for years: the critical shortage of law enforcement personnel on Indian reservations.

For more than 20 years, I have listened to tribal leaders express the need for adequate law enforcement resources. It happened again during the meeting with Salazar. This time, their descriptions were verified by information gathered during recent hearings of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, confirming the existence of a long-standing public safety crisis on many reservations.

Tribal communities face violent crime rates 2ยฝ times the national average. In some places, the rate is 20 times the average. Domestic and sexual violence are especially prevalent. More than one in three American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped in their lifetimes, and two in five will be subject to domestic violence.

But when a crime occurs on a reservation, it usually takes hours, not minutes, for police to show up. By then, the event is over, the harm is done, and the perpetrators are long on their way.

As I have said before, people in the Green Zone in Baghdad probably are safer than families on Indian reservations.


This is not the fault of dedicated law enforcement officers. It is the fault of a lack of resources.

Herald readers will recall reports about the surge in law enforcement on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation during the past year. Staffing was increased to address a violent crime rate that was more than eight times the national average.

The tribe had only nine Bureau of Indian Affairs officers patrolling more than 2 million acres. Often, only one officer was on duty to respond to calls from people in distress.

"Operation Dakota Peacekeeper," as it was called, showed what can be done to curb crime when adequate resources are available.

But while the results were encouraging, the BIA has acknowledged that such operations are not long-term solutions as they rely on borrowing officers from other reservations. So, one of the strategies we talked about with Salazar is creation of the Northern Plains Tribal Law Enforcement Center to train more BIA and tribal police officers.

Around the nation, fewer than 3,000 federal and tribal officers patrol 56 million acres of Indian lands. Many reservations lack 24-hour police coverage. In its 2006 analysis, the BIA estimated that tribal police were staffed at 58 percent of need, with an unmet need of 1,854 additional police officers.

Most uniformed officers get their training at the BIA Indian Police Academy in Artesia, N.M. But while the academy provides an outstanding training opportunity, it graduates an average of only 80 officers each year. The math alone signals the problem: too few officers being trained.

Tribes in the northern Great Plains long have sought a training center within this region. United Tribes Technical College is a ready fit. For decades, we have offered an associate degree in criminal justice. We have an existing agreement with the BIA to provide supplemental training to BIA and tribal police officers.


United Tribes would require some infrastructure improvements to offer state-of-the-art training opportunities. However, our current working relationship with the North Dakota Law Enforcement Training Academy in Bismarck would be an asset.

It is true that the tribal justice system itself, with its divisions and complexities, perhaps should be examined for reform. A good start is contained in legislation introduced in early April by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and 13 of his colleagues.

The Tribal Law and Order Act is a major bipartisan effort to strengthen law enforcement and justice in Indian communities. We all should be grateful for Dorgan's work and the support of the entire North Dakota congressional delegation, other lawmakers and tribal leaders.

But right now, adequate law enforcement is a fundamental need that we no longer can overlook. Indian communities must have a safe environment if they are to have viable economic development programs. Young people must be safe in their homes and schools to earn a good education. And tribes must be able to protect their most vulnerable members.

That's why training more officers and getting them onto the streets is one of the most urgent needs in Indian Country.

We deeply appreciated that Salazar listened thoughtfully.

Gipp is president of United Tribes Technical College.

What To Read Next
Get Local