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LEADERS IN PINE RIDGE TRYING TO RESOLVE POLICE CONTROVERSY

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By Mary Garrigan
PINE RIDGE — The tribal president, a traditional chief and the Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent met with Oglala Sioux Tribe police department representatives Thursday in an attempt to resolve an ongoing public safety crisis on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a tribal staffer said.

Administrative assistant Mel Lone Hill said an investigation continues, but he is hopeful that Thursday's talks may result in a reinstatement of officers.

Meanwhile, public safety on the reservation is being maintained by a temporary force of 25 BIA officers from throughout the country. They were brought in to supplement the remaining force of 12 to 14 tribal police officers, according to tribal and congressional officials.

Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele and BIA Superintendent Bob Ecoffey, along with Chief Oliver Red Cloud, hoped to reach some resolution over staffing issues in the Pine Ridge police department, Lone Hill said.

No comments were immediately available from officials.

Nearly 30 tribal police officers have resigned, been terminated or relieved of duty recently, and a group of them protested peacefully Thursday outside tribal headquarters. The tribal council met for a short meeting Thursday morning but did not address police department issues.

The council opted to wait for a report on an investigation by the Rapid City office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to tribal Councilman Floyd Brings Plenty. He expects the investigation and report to be completed sometime next week.

"The best thing we can do is keep our noses out of it right now," Brings Plenty said. "The police are a chartered, separate organization with their own policies and procedures, and they should address their internal problems through those procedures."

Brings Plenty said the temporary BIA force has done a good job of filling the immediate void in law enforcement on the reservation. "It's business as usual on the reservation, and as a council member, that's my main concern," he said.

Brings Plenty said the police officers have legitimate concerns about funding and work issues. "You can't blame these officers for being upset. I don't discount what they are saying, but they must conduct themselves professionally," he said. "The concerns they have are legitimate, but they also took oaths to protect and to serve."

He was referring to a scuffle that broke out Tuesday during a meeting between police officers and the tribe's executive board to discuss budget issues within the police department. Afterwards, more police officers resigned. Many felt the council did not take their concerns about administrative and financial problems seriously.

The tribe's Department of Public Safety is funded by the BIA, but its annual budget is administered by the tribal council.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe manages its police department through an option made available by the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. A tribe has the choice of allowing the BIA to provide essential services, such as law enforcement, on their reservation, or of contracting with the BIA for the funds to do it themselves. About half of the nine tribes in South Dakota have BIA-managed police departments, including the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe; the BIA's Operation Dakota Peacekeeper is now in effect on that reservation.

South Dakota's congressional delegation was keeping close tabs Thursday on the situation in Pine Ridge.

Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., called the police controversy an "unfortunate and dangerous development that threatens the public safety of families on Pine Ridge.

"The larger issue, of course, is the ongoing and unacceptable lack of resources for law enforcement across Indian Country. Native American families, like all families, deserve the basic sense of safety and security that should be provided by reliable, adequately funded law enforcement," she said.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said the safety of reservation residents is his first priority.

"This situation underscores the importance of my PEPFAR amendment and the Tribal Law and Order Act, which are both designed to provide basic levels of security on South Dakota reservations," Thune said.

A Thune-sponsored amendment in a $50 billion foreign aid bill that was recently signed into law by President Bush will direct $750 million to public safety improvements to reservations.

The Congressoinal delegation said this recent development at Pine Ridge highlights the importance that Congress act quickly on the Tribal Law and Order Act, as well.

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., commended the FBI and the BIA for their prompt response to the situation.

"It is essential that the people of the Pine Ridge reservation have adequate law enforcement, and I commend the FBI and the BIA for their prompt response to this crisis," Johnson said.
—RC Journal/SST

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