The Justice Department announced Thursday that it has chosen 10 American Indian tribes for a pilot project in which their courts and police departments will be authorized, for the first time, to have direct access to criminal information in federal databases.
The 10 tribes will be the first of the nation’s federally recognized 567 Indian tribes to be given training and computer equipment to obtain federal criminal records and other national data, as well as to submit information, without having to rely on local and state officials.
“This innovative program will allow an unprecedented sharing of critical information between tribal, state and federal governments, information that could help solve a crime or even save someone’s life,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates. She added that the Justice Department will try to get more funding from Congress to more broadly deploy the new Tribal Access Program for National Crime Information.
The dearth of shared criminal information between federal agencies and the nation’s Indian reservations, which are sovereign nations, has been a source of tension for decades. It has also had deadly consequences.
Last year, a 15-year-old Native American boy and member of the Tulalip Tribes in Washington who killed four classmates and himself at his school near Seattle got access to a gun that his father should not have been able to purchase.
The Tulalip tribal court had issued a restraining order against the father after he allegedly threatened his girlfriend and had hit and slapped her. But the information about the restraining order did not show up in a federal criminal database, which allowed the boy’s father to buy the gun.
Melvin R. Sheldon, chairman of the Tulalip Tribes, praised the Justice Department’s pilot project as a critical and long-needed step forward in Indian country.
“This is a very important tool for all the tribes,” said Sheldon, who was in Washington for the White House Tribal Nations Conference with President Obama. “Cities, counties and states don’t always accept that tribes are municipalities, and getting access to criminal records is difficult. People with criminal records have been known to go from reservation to reservation. Without a one-stop place for information sharing, we’re all kind of working in the blind.”
At the White House tribal conference, Obama spoke with five Native American youths Thursday afternoon in a wide-ranging conversation on issues facing the tribes, including education, economic opportunity and the epidemic of teen suicide on reservations, a topic often considered taboo in Indian culture.
At points, the discussion turned personal. One Native American teenager told Obama that she would return from Washington to a home on the Navajo Nation with no running water or electricity.
“It’s not acceptable that anybody doesn’t have running water in this country,” Obama said. He talked about the Alaska Native communities he had visited and his trip last year to North Dakota’s Standing Rock reservation where he said he heard “heart-breaking stories.”
Obama has said before that he teared up in the Oval Office, recounting the plight of the children he met at Standing Rock.
For decades, Obama told the youths, U.S. government programs to help Indian country have been “underfunded, not well-thought-out and kind of an afterthought.”
He said his administration has worked to have a better relationship with the nation’s tribes and listen to their concerns.
In the past, tribes have been unable to get basic criminal information vital to public safety from national crime databases. Sometimes, the tribes obtained the information by going through state databases, but the ability to get federal information that way is often spotty. Some states work well with the tribes; other’s don’t.
When tribal police, for example, make a traffic stop on the reservation, they don’t have direct access to federal databases to check the criminal background of the person they have stopped. Under the new program, the 10 tribes will have the ability to use the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Service systems.
Those systems include the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which is used to determine whether a person is eligible to possess firearms or explosives.
Justice officials said the new program will support investigations on tribal lands, including by providing a biometric and biographic computer workstation with the ability to process fingerprints and palm prints, take mug shots and submit records to national databases.
The tribes who have been chosen to participate in the new Justice program are the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of Michigan, the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, the Suquamish Indian Tribe of the Port Madison Indian Reservation of Washington, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation of Idaho, the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation of Oregon and the White Mountain Apache Tribe of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation of Arizona.