Tribal crime rises, but Washington still pulls back

Timothy Williams / New York Times News Service /

The federal government has cut the size of its police force in Indian country, reduced funding for law enforcement and begun fewer investigations of violent felony crime, even as rates of murder and rape there have increased to more than 20 times the national average, according to data.

The data, much of it contained in recently released Justice Department reports, underscores a reputation for chronic lawlessness on Indian reservations, where unchecked crime has for years perplexed federal agencies, which are largely responsible for public safety on Indian lands.

As one illustration of the profound increase in violence in recent years — despite generally declining crime in much of the rest of the nation — FBI crime data reports that the number of reported rapes on the Navajo reservation in the Southwest in the last several years has eclipsed those in nine of America’s 20 largest cities, even though there are only 180,000 people on the reservation.

Navajo’s 374 reported rapes in 2009, for example, outpaced even Detroit, for decades among the nation’s most violent cities, where there were 335 rapes that year.

President Barack Obama has called violence on Indian lands “an affront to our shared humanity.” But according to federal figures, his administration has cut both the Indian Affairs budget and spending on reservation law enforcement. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has opened fewer investigations for violent felonies committed in Indian country than under previous presidents, while pursuing violent crime in the rest of the nation far more aggressively than its predecessors.

From 2000 to 2010, for instance, as crime on some reservations surged by as much as 50 percent, the number of suspects on Indian lands being investigated for violent crime by U.S. attorneys declined 3 percent, according to Justice Department figures.

In contrast, while crime fell 13 percent nationally during the same decade, federal prosecutions of violent crime outside Indian country increased 29 percent.

Further, Indian country had 3,462 full-time police personnel in 2000, a number that now stands at about 3,000, according to Justice Department statistics.

During that time, homicides on Indian lands rose 38 percent, to 133 in 2010 from 94 in 2000; rapes increased nearly 55 percent, to 852 from 550; and arson and robbery rates doubled, according to the FBI.

The Justice Department has deployed 37 extra FBI agents and U.S. attorneys to Indian country in recent years.

“The attorney general has said this is a priority, and I know he is absolutely committed to the issue,” said Brendan Johnson, the U.S. attorney for South Dakota, who is also chairman of the agency’s Native American Issues Subcommittee.

Nonetheless, the federal government allocates far less money for public safety on Indian lands than what similarly sized big cities devote to fighting crime.

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