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HERSETH-SANDLIN: REACTION TO BIA PRESENCE MIXED

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By Mary Garrigan
PINE RIDGE — South Dakota's lone congresswoman told members of the Oglala Sioux tribal council on Tuesday that her job is to get the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2008 passed by Congress and their job is to put together a plan for operating a professional police department that will pass scrutiny by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin met with OST president John Yellow Bird Steele and about a half-dozen other council members in Pine Ridge. She urged them to act quickly to meet a fast-approaching 30-day deadline, imposed in mid-August by BIA officials. The BIA has asked for a plan for what the tribe will do to maintain public safety on Pine Ridge and thus keep its Department of Public Safety under tribal control instead of under BIA management.

"I'm hopeful they understand the timetable to do that is short," Herseth-Sandlin said. "I think the tribe has demonstrated in the past that it can provide and maintain a professional police department. But they need to act quickly on implementing a plan. It's not clear to me how flexible the BIA is willing to be on that deadline."

Patrick Ragsdale, the director of the BIA's Office of Justice Services, plans to be back in Pine Ridge this week to evaluate the public safety situation there.

Neither President Steele nor Police Chief Joe Herman returned phone calls from the Journal asking if such a plan exists or when it would be delivered to the BIA.

BIA special agent Elmer Four Dance said this week that he has not yet seen a police department plan from OST officials.

Without one, Herseth-Sandlin said, there is "the very real threat that their authority will be retroceded."

Herseth-Sandlin said many of the reservation residents she spoke with Tuesday have a desire to see the tribe maintain management of its own police department, but they also want to feel safe in their homes and communities.

"It's a mixed response to the BIA presence," she said. Many people are glad to have a renewed sense of safety and security in their daily lives since the BIA dispatched 35 supplemental officers to Pine Ridge in mid-August, but others who lived through the 1970s or those who have heard the history of that time remain skeptical of an increased federal presence on the reservation.

"It's difficult to find a consensus," she said.

Regardless, the BIA can't continue to re-extend those temporary assignments without compromising its forces on other reservations. The tribe mustrecognize that BIA agents and other tribal police departments can't continue to be a short-term answer to its own long-term police needs, she said.

What the tribal council clearly does understand is the community's demand that it minimize its political influence and meddling in police department matters, she said. "But there's disagreement in the community in how this situation unfolded and how to rectify it," she said.

There is consensus, however, between the tribal council and Herseth-Sandlin that the United States is not adequately funding public safety programs on the Pine Ridge reservation.

The BIA's temporary, supplemental police force will bring BIA costs for justice-related programs on Pine Ridge to nearly $10 million in fiscal year 2008, according to BIA budget figures. Although Herseth-Sandlin said there must be compliance and accountability standards for those funds, "even with those, I remain convinced that we are not fulfilling our treaty obligations."

Increased population growth, a huge land area to patrol and changing societal problems and pressures make more resources for public safety on the reservation essential, she said.

Herseth-Sandlin hopes that Congress can pass the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2008 yet this year. She is a sponsor of the House of Representatives' version of the Senate bill by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. That bill is a wide-ranging attempt to bring more accountability and coordination to federal, state and tribal justice obligations on reservations. It would enhance coordination between the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal communities about the investigation and prosecution of crimes on tribal lands.

It would empower tribal law enforcement agencies in numerous ways, including enhancing the sentencing authority of tribal courts to punish offenders with up to three years imprisonment. Current law limits tribal court sentencing authority to no more than one year

It would increase resources for existing tribal justice programs meant to improve courts, jails, youth programs and policing efforts. It would improve crime data collection and information sharing capabilities on tribal reservations. Finally, it would improve prevention, prosecution and enforcement efforts for domestic violence and sexual-assault crimes.

The Congressional Budget Office has not produced an official estimate of fully funding the bill, but the Senate Indian Affairs Committee estimated the cost at $932 million over 5 years.
—RCJournal

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