Montana tribe sues US agency over policing and jail space

July 22, 2022 GMT

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A southeastern Montana tribe has filed a federal lawsuit against the Interior Department and its Bureau of Indian Affairs, saying the U.S. is not complying with its treaty obligation to provide adequate law enforcement services on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in Billings argues the federal government does not provide enough federal law enforcement officers, drug investigators, missing persons investigators or jail space even though violent crime has increased on the reservation, The Billings Gazette reported.

“Public safety on-reservation is severely compromised due to the lack of meaningful BIA law enforcement presence in our communities,” Northern Cheyenne Tribe President Serena Wetherelt said in a statement.

She added: “Officers often respond to 911 calls too late and even when they do show up, they frequently fail to make reports, secure crime scenes, or arrest people who are actively committing crimes.”

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The officers also lack of understanding of tribal and federal law, which leads to suspects not being charged or prosecuted, the lawsuit said.

Reports of violent crime on the reservation increased 50% from 2019 to 2020 and does not include crimes that went unreported, the lawsuit said.

The Interior Department declined Friday to comment about the lawsuit, spokesperson Tyler Cherry said.

The tribal government has asked for help since at least 2018 and on its own hired two former BIA officers and a former BIA corrections officer to create a tribal investigations agency, The tribe is seeking at least $1 million in restitution for the money spent on those officers, the lawsuit said.

After several homicides on the reservation in the summer of 2020, some tribal members created a vigilante group with its own phone number so it could respond to crime reports, the lawsuit said.

The jail in Lame Deer, home to the tribal headquarters, is a temporary holding facility for intoxicated people taken into custody. All other suspects must be taken to a jail 56 miles (90 kilometers) away in Hardin, which reduces the number of officers on patrol because they have to transport the suspects, the lawsuit said.

In many cases, officers instead of arresting criminal suspects drop them off at a homeless shelter, leaving them free to reoffend, the lawsuit said.

About 5,000 members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe live on the 694 square mile (1,800 square kilometer) reservation. Federal data showed 17 tribal members were missing in August 2021 — the third highest total number of missing people for all U.S. tribes, the lawsuit said.