Judge: US Has Duty to Fund Res Policing05/27 08:10
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. government has a
treaty obligation to support law enforcement on the Pine Ridge Reservation in
South Dakota, but declined for now to determine whether the Oglala Sioux Tribe
is entitled to as much funding as it's seeking.
Tribal leaders depicted the ruling as a victory, saying the important point
is that the court confirmed that the federal government has a duty to fund
policing on the reservation and ordered U.S. officials to meet with Oglala
Sioux leaders "to work together promptly to figure out how to more fairly fund
tribal law enforcement."
The outcome of the case could affect other reservations, including some
where Native women are killed at a rate more than 10 times the national
average. The Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana has filed a similar lawsuit.
Oglala Sioux officials contend the tribe is entitled to federal funding for
120 fully equipped officers for the sprawling Pine Ridge Reservation, something
the federal government has disputed.
"This Court concludes that the United States has a treaty duty unique to the
Tribe to provide protection and law enforcement cooperation and support on the
Reservation. ... However, the Tribe has not shown at this stage that a duty
extends to entitle the Tribe to the level of funding or support that it
sought," U.S. District Judge Roberto Lange said in an order filed Tuesday.
The tribe sued the Bureau of Indian Affairs and some high-level officials
last July. The court held a two-day hearing in February.
The government denied having any such obligation and asked the judge to
dismiss the lawsuit.
Lange directed the Bureau of Indian Affairs to help the tribe refine its
funding requests "as soon as practicable" to reflect its treaty obligations. He
also told the federal government to reevaluate its census-based population
estimates for the reservation of 19,800 to 32,000, which are lower than the
tribe's figure of 40,000. The judge said the federal estimates likely represent
Oglala Sioux President Frank Star Comes Out and Public Safety Chief Algin
Young called on the government in separate statements to provide the tribe with
the resources it needs to tackle the public safety and humanitarian crisis on
the reservation. If the government fails, Star Comes Out said, the tribe "will
look forward to proving at trial that the United States has violated its treaty
Officials from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs did not immediately respond
to a request for comment Friday.
Lange's ruling gave a dire depiction of crime on the more than
5,400-square-mile (14,000-square-kilometer) Pine Ridge Reservation, which is
about the size of Connecticut. He noted that it's among the most impoverished
places in the country.
"In recent years, communities on the Reservation have struggled with
dangerous and highly addictive drugs and experienced unprecedented levels of
violence and threats to public safety," he wrote. "In the Tribe's view, a lack
of competent and effective law enforcement on the Reservation is a big reason
for the crisis."
At any given time over the last several years, Lange wrote, the tribe has
only had funding to employ roughly 33 police officers and seven criminal
investigators to cover all of its 911 calls. In 2021 alone, nearly 134,000
calls were made to 911 on the reservation, But at any given time, he said, only
six to eight, and sometimes fewer, tribal police officers are on duty to
respond. So many calls are abandoned or not properly investigated, he said,
that many crimes go unprosecuted.
While neither side disputes that crime is "very high" on the reservation and
that its police are underfunded, the judge wrote, the federal government
insists "that the funding is fair given budget constraints and Congress's
decision to underfund law enforcement services in Indian country generally."
Across the country, Native American tribes have increasingly advocated
through the courts for treaty rights, including hunting, fishing and education,
with some success.
Lange concluded that the "express language" of the 1868 Treaty of Fort
Laramie, when read in conjunction with other treaties and federal laws,
"imposes some duty on the United States to provide law enforcement support on
the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The contours of that duty is a more