Hopi encouraged by federal vow to combat crime in Indian Country

KYKOTSMOVI, Ariz. - The commitment of the U.S. Attorney's Office to improve public safety on tribal land is an encouraging sign that steps will be taken to cut crime and prosecute criminals in a timely manner in Indian Country, said Mike Puhuyesva, chairman of the Hopi Tribal Council's Law Enforcement Task Team.

"This is a step in a positive direction," Puhuyesva said of Attorney General Eric Holder's recent directive to create better communication and coordination to fight crime and promote justice in Indian Country. Puhuyesva noted that the task team has invited Dennis Burke, U.S. attorney for Arizona, to meet with the Hopi Council and the task team.

"I am encouraged by what they are proposing to do for Indian Country and I hope they follow through on what they set out to do," Puhuyesva said.

"We want to know what he can provide in the near future, and tell him what we have experienced in prosecution delays and getting things to court," Puhuyesva added. He said he was especially concerned about the timely prosecution of homicides.

Burke's office and the Hopi Tribe appear to be on the same page. Immediately after Holder's directive Jan. 11, Burke's office decided to set up a one-day conference for all tribal leaders in the state to determine how to implement the directive, said John Tuchi, adviser on tribal affairs for the U.S. Attorney's Office. The conference is planned for late February or early March.

Tuchi said he and Burke want to schedule a trip to the Hopi Reservation in early spring to meet with lawmakers, court officials and the police. The plan is to do the same thing for all tribes, as Burke noted in a letter last month to tribal leaders.

"One of the first steps we are taking is to establish a regular means of communicating and working with you on a government-to-government basis, so we will have your guidance in this important work," Burke said in the letter.

He noted that in remarks last fall at the White House Tribal Nations Conference, President Obama had said, "Tribes need support in strengthening their law enforcement capability. They need better resources and more training. And my administration fully appreciates the complexity and challenges you face when it comes to the criminal justice system on tribal lands..."

Tuchi said the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona has 16-18 full-time and part-time prosecutors who work on violent crime in Indian country. Burke emphasized that these prosecutors are among the most experienced litigators in his office.

"Together with our team of Indian Country prosecutors and advisers, I will seek your guidance on the additional steps the United States Attorney's Office can take to improve public safety and law enforcement in Indian Country," Burke said.

Burke noted in his letter that the assistant U.S. attorneys assigned primarily to felony prosecutions in Indian Country will have liaison responsibilities, as well.

In addition, he said his office will report and explain "any and all declinations" of cases "in a clear and timely manner."

"Indeed," he said in the letter, "within 30 days of a case being submitted to our office for prosecution, we will notify the investigative agency and appropriate tribal prosecutor if a case is declined for prosecution and is to be referred to tribal court or if we believe additional investigation is warranted."

If a case is declined, he said, his office will invite the tribal prosecutor to review all the investigative materials to help in a successful prosecution in tribal court, and will encourage federal agencies to turn over their evidence, as well.

He added that his office is developing a Web site to include case status updates with secure access for tribal law enforcement.

In much of Indian country, the Justice Department has the sole authority to seek a conviction that carries an appropriate potential sentence when a serious crime has been committed.

According to the DOJ, tribal leaders have confirmed what federal experts have been saying: "Violent crime in Indian Country is at unacceptable levels and has a devastating impact on the basic quality of life there...Tribal law enforcement resources are typically scarce, a problem exacerbated by the geographic isolation and/or vast size of many reservations. Federal and state resources devoted to Indian Country have also typically been insufficient to address law enforcement needs."

Much of what Holder's directive outlines is similar to language in the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009 sponsored by U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

The act, still pending in Congress, has been endorsed by the Obama administration, and is designed to boost law enforcement efforts on reservations by providing tools to tribal justice officials to fight crime in their own communities, improving coordination between law enforcement agencies, and increasing accountability standards for federal agencies responsible for combating crime on Indian lands.

In his directive, Holder said, "The public safety challenges we face in Indian Country will not be solved by a single grant or a single piece of legislation. There is no quick fix. While [the] directive is significant progress, we need to continue our efforts with federal, state and tribal partners to identify solutions to the challenges we face, and work to implement them."

Each U.S. attorney with Indian Country jurisdiction was directed to establish a structure and plan for his or her district. Every newly confirmed U.S. attorney in districts with Indian County was told that, upon assuming office, to consult with tribes in the district and "develop or update the district's operational plan within eight months of assuming office," unless granted an extension.

Holder directed all U.S. attorneys' offices with districts containing Indian Country (44 out of 93) to:

• Meet and consult with tribes in their district annually.

• Develop an operational plan addressing public safety in Indian Country.

• Work closely with law enforcement to pay particular attention to violence against women in Indian Country and make these crimes a priority.

• Provide summaries of their operational plans to the office of the deputy attorney general and make those summaries available to the tribes in their districts.

He said there is "no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges confronting Indian Country." But, he said, success depends on the commitment and leadership of all the U.S. attorneys and law enforcement personnel.

Holder also announced that the Justice Department would provide an additional $6 million for Indian Country prosecution efforts. At least 35 assistant U.S. attorneys and 12 FBI victim specialists will be added in offices with an Indian Country caseload. As part of this effort, the department plans to initiate a Community Prosecution Pilot Project.

Tuchi said the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona definitely will request that some of these new positions be assigned to the state.

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