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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 
an undercount.

   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 
difficult question."

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