Bureau of Indian Affairs police officers and tribal police officers at the Northern Pueblos Agency in Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico. Photo from BIA Office of Justice Services / Facebook

Lawmakers concerned about late and missing tribal justice reports

Members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee slammed the Obama administration on Wednesday for failing to deliver timely reports about public safety in Indian Country.

The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 requires the Department of Justice to provide yearly reports about the number of cases it investigates and prosecutes on reservations. Yet only three have been released in the last five years.

The first two, covering the years 2011-2012 and 2013, were well-publicized by the Obama administration. In contrast, the most recent one, covering 2014, wasn't delivered until shortly before yesterday's hearing.

"There is no justification for such delays," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the committee.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on Tribal Law and Order Act

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the vice chairman, was equally critical. Of all the committees in Congress, he said Indian Affairs is the only one where information is regularly delivered late.

"Indian Country's in crisis and what this tells me, right or wrong, is that it's not a priority for you," Tester told representatives of the Obama administration who appeared at the hearing.

"It's unacceptable and it's the only committee that this happens," Tester said.

While DOJ has been slow to release information, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has fared even worse. In the last five years, the agency has never delivered a report that details the unmet law enforcement needs on reservations, a figure that would help justify funding requests.

A Bureau of Indian Affairs police officer participates in a community event on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. Photo from BIA Office of Justice Services / Facebook

"We don't know how many cops we need in Indian Country and where we're going to get them," observed Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota).

Larry Roberts, the principal deputy assistant secretary at the BIA, acknowledged the failure. He said the agency is still collecting data from all of the law enforcement agencies across Indian Country in order to fulfill the requirements of the law.

'We want to make sure that the numbers are right and we want to make sure that it's a comprehensive report," Roberts told the committee.

The 2014 Indian Country Investigations and Prosecutions report was sent to the committee via e-mail only about a half an hour before the start of yesterday's hearing at 2:15pm Eastern. But Tracy Toulou, the director of the Office of Tribal Justice at DOJ, did not address the timeliness issue in his testimony or in his written statement.

President Barack Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act on July 29, 2010. Photo by National Congress of American Indians via Flickr

"This is a big deal," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) of the need for adequate information in order to make improvements in Indian Country. "This is not something to be taken lightly."

Although the 2014 report was sent to the committee, it still hasn't been posted on DOJ's Tribal Law and Order Act page or otherwise widely disseminated to Indian Country. A phone call to DOJ's public affairs office seeking more information hadn't been returned as of Thursday afternoon. Update: A copy of the report was posted on the DOJ's TLOA page at around 5pm on Thursday.

The office, on the other hand, sent out Toulou's testimony via e-mail and posted a copy on DOJ's website.

"We recognize that there is significant work still to be done to live up to our responsibilities in Indian Country and we are committed to seeing this work through," Toulou told the committee.

According to the report, the majority of cases opened by U.S. Attorneys across the nation were taken to prosecution. Only 34 percent were declined in 2014, a rate equal to the one from 2013 (34 percent) and similar to the one from 2012 (32 percent).

Prior studies -- including one by the Government Accountability Office -- found that federal prosecutors were turning down as many as 50 percent of Indian Country cases in the years prior to the passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act.

President Barack Obama signed H.R.725, a bill that included the Tribal Law and Order Act, on July 29, 2010. The measure was written to help tribes and federal agencies address high rates of crime and victimization in Indian Country.

Committee Notice:
Tribal Law and Order Act (TLOA) – 5 Years Later: How have the justice systems in Indian Country improved? (December 2, 2015)

Indian Law and Order Commission Report:
A Roadmap For Making Native America Safer (November 2013)

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