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Giving Native Americans the Right to Information

The Department of Justice is expanding a program that gives tribes access to federal crime data.

By Kate Wheeling


Flag of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Department of Justice announced this week that an additional 11 tribes will be added to a program that allows tribal police and courts to exchange criminal information with federal databases.

The Tribal Access Program, as it’s known, launched in August of 2015, and initially 10 tribes received training and equipment to obtain and submit records to national databases.

Indian reservations across the United States are sovereign nations, but several laws have been passed, going back to the 1990s, granting tribes the right to access federal databases. Since the ’90s, tribes have had sparse and sporadic access to crime data, but logistical and political barriers kept them mostly in the dark.

“The problem was that the information hubs, if you will, generally were the Departments of Public Safety for the different states,” says Alfred Urbina, the attorney general for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona — one of the first tribes to participate in the program. “So although there was federal access granted by law, it was difficult to get the actual agreements in place between the state DPS and the tribes.”

TAP is a workaround; it allows tribes to bypass state and local agencies and tap directly into federal databases. “And it’s basically working,” Urbina says. He brings up a case, for example, in which a man from Oklahoma was living on the Pascua Yaqui reservation in Arizona. The local tribal police picked him up for domestic violence and assault, at which point they learned of a warrant for his arrest for armed robbery in Oklahoma. Pascua Yaqui officials eventually sent the man back to Oklahoma to face his charges there. That’s exactly the kind of case that would have slipped through the cracks before the tribe had consistent access to the federal databases.

“Those information gaps are critical both in the state and also on the tribe, so that lack of flow of information that wasn’t occurring creates dangerous situations.”

Extraditions are only one factor. Native American women face the highest rates of violence and sexual assault in the U.S., but orders of protection — restraining orders courts can issue to protect victims of domestic abuse or harassment — are unenforceable if law enforcement officials off the reservation can’t confirm they exist. “It’s almost like these court orders are written in invisible ink,” Urbina says, “because they are then not enforced off reservation or shared widely.”

“I’m proud that the Justice Department is continuing to act as a responsible partner with tribal governments in this landmark effort,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said in a statement on the program’s expansion, “which strengthens both sovereignty and safety for American Indian and Alaska Native people.”

But when criminal records are not shared, it’s not only tribes that are put at risk. Past convictions and current warrants are critical when officials are deciding whether or not to release someone on bond, and a criminal history can influence offenders’ ability to purchase guns, sentencing, and police interactions. “Those information gaps are critical both in the state and also on the tribe, so that lack of flow of information that wasn’t occurring creates dangerous situations,” Urbina says. “It creates lawless areas within the state essentially.”

On the reservation, the Pascua Yaqui are still working out the internal processes for the program — who will have access and how misuse of the information will be prevented and punished. Urbina claims the program has already benefited the tribe, even if they don’t have the numbers yet to prove it. “Because that system wasn’t in place, we were seeing … I don’t want to call it spikes in crime, but you would definitely see higher crime rates on reservations,” he says. “With the system in place, it’s my contention that you’re going to see a deterrent effect.”

Arizona’s Pascua Yaqui, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and the Tulalip Tribes of Washington were among the first tribes to gain access to the program. This year, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North and South Dakota, the Tohono O’odham Nation of Arizona, and Navajo Nation in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah are among the 11 tribes that will join them. But the rest of the nation’s 567 federally recognized tribes are still left with limited or no access to federal crime data.*

*Update — December 22, 2016: This post has been updated to better reflect the number of federally recognized tribes.