Important Things to Know About Tribal Law Enforcement

Important Things to Know About Tribal Law Enforcement

Tribal law enforcement agencies don’t run much differently than the county, state, and federal non-tribal agencies, but they certainly face a unique set of challenges.

Tribal lands and reservations open to the public attract thousands of visitors and tourists each year, between casinos, conference facilities, and natural resources that double as popular destinations. Combine tribal residents, who face their own legal challenges, with the vast amount of tourists mingling among them, and that creates a need for more law enforcement personnel that are available to tribes. 

The statistics

Tribal law enforcement is responsible for patrolling approximately 1 percent of the total U.S. population and 2 percent of the nation’s landmass while using only the available 0.004 percent of individuals who serve with tribal law enforcement agencies.

According to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI): 

  • On tribal lands, 1.3 officers must serve every 1,000 citizens.
  • There are only 2,380 Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal uniformed officers available to serve an estimated 1.4 million Indians, spanning over 56 million acres of tribal lands in the lower 48 states.
  • A total of at least 4,290 sworn officers are needed in Indian Country to provide the minimum level of coverage enjoyed by most communities in the United States.

Legal issues facing tribal communities

Historically, Native Americans living on tribal land have faced certain challenges disproportionately higher than non-tribal communities—and they continue to be more vulnerable to criminal activity. These crimes include but are not exclusively related to drug and alcohol abuse, child welfare, sex trafficking, sexual assault, murder, juvenile offenses, and domestic disputes. 

There is also a great risk of criminal activity from non-Native individuals who frequent casinos and public areas on reservations. 

These challenges continue to be problematic for Indian Country and are the main reason law enforcement personnel need to have an increase in numbers and presence on tribal land. 

Challenges facing tribal law enforcement

High rates of criminal activity paired with not enough law enforcement officers available to police the large areas of tribal land, equal frustration, a feeling of vulnerability, and worry. Some of the specific challenges that tribal law enforcement face regularly include: 

  • Complex jurisdiction issues 
  • High rates of criminal conduct
  • Land ownership conflicts
  • Conflicts between non-tribal local, state, and federal agencies
  • Law enforcement of natural resources 
  • Lack of available officers 
  • Officers being asked to perform additional duties that take them away from their normal daily functions
  • Daily visitors upon tribal land

Individuals living on tribal land deserve to feel safe and secure and know that their issues and conflicts will be taken care of by their law enforcement agency. For things to change, there must be a push for an increased law enforcement budget for tribal lands and the allocation of additional law enforcement personnel. 

Congress can and must do more to ease the challenges that Natives face on tribal land.

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