Attorney General Sessions vows help for public safety in Indian Country

Law enforcement officers from the Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana participate in a training session. Photo: Ivy Allen / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The new leader of the Department of Justice is heeding calls to pay more attention to law enforcement and public safety in Indian Country.

During his confirmation process, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said high rates of crime in tribal communities were repeatedly brought up in meetings with lawmakers. At the time he acknowledged he didn't understand the extent of the problem but he is vowing to help address the crisis.

“It is paramount that tribal police have the tools they need to fight crime and maintain public safety in their communities,” Sessions said in a press release on Tuesday. “Law enforcement in Indian Country faces unique practical and jurisdictional challenges and the Department of Justice is committed to working with them to provide greater access to technology, information and necessary enforcement.”

In the press release, the department said it will deploy the Tribal Access Program for National Crime Information on 10 additional reservations. Through the program, tribal law enforcement can access federal criminal databases that are already available to states and local governments.

Although the press release described the effort as a "new" action, the program was mandated by the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010. The Obama administration started implementing the provision in 2015 after years of complaints by tribes.

The 10 additional reservations announced by Sessions on Tuesday in fact were selected by the Obama administration in December, well before the new attorney general came on board. The department solicited more applicants for the second year of the program last October.

Additionally, the department said the Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, which was established after President Donald Trump signed an executive order in February, will host listening sessions in Indian Country. Dates weren't immediately announced.

Finally, the department announced the creation of the Indian Country Federal Law Enforcement Coordination Group. According to the press release, the 12 federal law enforcement agencies will work together to address violent crime on reservations.

During his confirmation process, Sessions admitted that he opposed the Violence Against Women Act of 2013 because it recognized the "inherent" authority of tribes to arrest, prosecute and punish non-Indians who abuse their partners. He said the provision, which has been implemented without major problems, was a "big concern" for him during his time in the U.S. Senate.

When pressed further on the issue, Sessions left open the door for challenges to tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians. Key lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, have said they will stand up for the landmark VAWA provision.

"Those of us who fight for the safety of Native women in Congress are not going to let Attorney General Sessions forget what his obligation is," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who sits on the committee that determines the federal government's funding levels, told a briefing on missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Washington, D.C., in February.

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