Jurisdictional No-Man’s Land: Explaining to FBI Director Comey Why Our Tribes Need a Cop on the Beat

The last time I spoke with Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey at a U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland and Governmental Affairs hearing last fall, I warned him I was going to pick on him, and I did. And I was fairly unrelenting in my calls for more attention to the problems with crime in North Dakota.

Sen. Heitkamp speaking with FBI Director James Comey on MHA Nation during a meeting with tribal leaders and law enforcement about the need for a ‘cop on the beat’ in Indian Country on June 6, 2016

For too long in my part of the world — particularly since North Dakota’s oil and gas boom — criminals seeking anonymity for some of the most hideous of crimes have found it on Mandan Hidatsa Arikara (MHA) Nation, which is seated at the center of the Bakken shale formation in the state’s oil patch. We have heard about a drastic increase over the past several years in gangs that have targeted MHA Nation, and are operating directly on the reservation. The community has experienced a spike in methamphetamine, heroine, and opioid abuses — not to mention increases of incidents of sexual assault. And young too many Native girls have been entrapped into lives of sex trafficking.

Because major crimes on tribal lands fall under the jurisdiction of federal law enforcement — criminals believe that there is a good chance their crimes will go uninvestigated and unprosecuted — and they’re right. In Indian Country, such jurisdictional issues leave no cop on the beat to stop them.

At the Senate hearing in October, I pressed Director Comey to place a permanent federal law enforcement presence in Indian Country, particularly on MHA Nation, and invited him to see for himself the situation on the ground in North Dakota.

I’m glad he’s accepted my invitation as today we’re visiting MHA Nation, where he will hear directly from tribal leaders and law enforcement about the jurisdictional challenges they have been dealing with since the increase in crime that has overwhelmed their limited law enforcement and criminal justice resources.

Sen. Heitkamp on a joint U.S. Marshal Service-Three Affiliated Tribes police operation to check on sex offenders on the Fort Berthold Tribal Reservation in April 2015

Over the years, I’ve spent a great deal of time with law enforcement on MHA Nation, including doing a ride-along last spring with U.S. Marshals and tribal police, who — along with the Three Affiliated Tribes Tribal Police, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, our state’s tribal judges, U.S. Attorney, and FBI in Willston — are doing great work to stem the tide of these crimes. But it simply is not enough to fully combat the massive increase of drugs, crime, trafficking, and gang violence.

It didn’t happen overnight, but we have made strides to combat the problems with crime in western North Dakota, despite the many challenges that still exist. And it’s clear there is still have much work to do. When ‎I brought the former White House drug czar to North Dakota in July 2013, he heard from‎ tribal leaders and law enforcement in Bismarck about how criminals seeking refuge on their land had been ravaging Native communities. At that meeting, it became incredibly clear how needed federal law enforcement resources are for Indian Country in North Dakota to combat the rising drug, gang, and criminal activity on the reservations. Following that meeting, I spoke with then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder about the urgent need for increased federal law enforcement resources and a federal law enforcement presence on the ground in Indian Country.

Sen. Heitkamp meeting with White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske with tribal leaders and law enforcement at United Tribes Technical College in July 2013

While making the case was important, getting federal law enforcement resources on the ground in North Dakota’s oil patch and as close to MHA Nation as possible was an immediate priority. Later in 2013, I followed up with Director Kerlikowske and Director Comey to specifically request FBI agents in Williston that would help address the sharp increase in crime in western North Dakota, including on MHA Nation. And in the spring of 2014, I met with then-U.S. Department of Justice Associate Attorney General Tony West to call for FBI agents and Assistant US Attorneys in North Dakota’s Indian Country, especially on MHA Nation since drug and human trafficking crimes had spiked.

Over the past several years, I’ve pressed as many people as possible to advocate for federal reinforcements to help tribal communities — and it paid off. In the fall of 2014, we gained momentum toward securing a permanent FBI office in Williston which would help direly needed federal resources closer to tribal communities on MHA Nation. And at the end of 2014 during my first meeting with U.S. Department of Justice Attorney General Loretta Lynch, I made sure she knew the first thing on her agenda from my prospective ought to be addressing the severe lack of federal resources needed to investigate and prosecute all major crimes, in particular those serious crimes committed by non-enrolled members on tribal lands in North Dakota.

Then in 2015, the very day the FBI office opened in Williston that we had pushed for, I knew we were getting closer — and I began doubling down to secure federal law enforcement presence in Indian Country. From my discussion with Director Comey during the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing last fall, to calling on U.S. Department of Justice Tribal Justice Director Tracy Toulou to work toward putting federal law enforcement resources in North Dakota in the winter, I haven’t stopped my fight for a cop on the beat in Indian Country. Having a federal law enforcement presence there would make a huge difference. We cannot allow these communities to perish.

The federal government bears responsibility for upholding its treaty obligations and making sure Native communities get the support they need to address the crime challenges that are occurring and only increasing. It needs to stop bad actors who know they can find safe havens on this jurisdictional no-man’s land.

Today I hope for a productive conversation between Director Comey and our tribal officials and law enforcement, so he can hear more about the generations-long impact such vulnerability to crime can create, and begin to remedy it by providing the protective federal resources that are long overdue to keep communities in Indian Country and across North Dakota strong and safe well into the future.

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