HELENA, Mont. — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions moved Tuesday to expand an Obama administration initiative to allow more tribal authorities access to federal anti-crime databases — an action long sought by tribes from the Metlakatla of Alaska to the Oneida of New York.
The attorney general’s announcement was part of a broader package to improve the sometimes-strained relationship between federal authorities and Native America.
Complex historical, cultural and legal relationships between tribes and the U.S. government have complicated that effort in the past.
“Law enforcement in Indian Country faces unique practical and jurisdictional challenges,” Sessions said in a statement, “and the Department of Justice is committed to working with them to provide greater access to technology, information and necessary enforcement.”
As part of the program, the Justice Department will hold a series of “listening sessions” with tribal leaders and law enforcement officials to better understand the challenges Indian reservations face in addressing crime.
The department also said it established a working group, comprised of federal officials from 12 agencies, to increase collaboration between U.S. authorities and those in sovereign Indian nations.
The centerpiece of the program is an expansion of an Obama administration program launched in 2015 that gives some tribal nations access to criminal data contained in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Nine tribes were already a part of the program that Sessions said in December he would expand to 10 more tribes.
“This cooperation among law enforcement protects all people, not just Native Americans,” said John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians.
Tribal governments have long sought to expand access to criminal background information collected by the federal government not only to attack crime but to also help with civil matters such as child custody cases.
While some tribes have access to state criminal information, access to the federal database will allow tribal authorities to more quickly and more deeply access information about people.
Access to federal databases will also soon expand to the Metlakatla Indians of Alaska, Navajo of the Southwest and the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Cheppewa Indians, among other tribes.
Law enforcement officials on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana began using the federal databases on Tuesday, giving them access to additional background on individuals, including those who might have crossed state lines.
Ken Trottier, supervising investigator for the reservation, said the new tools will help fight an entrenched problem with meth and other criminal activity spawned by a population boom in the Bakken oil region.
“Suddenly we saw a lot of strange and new faces — people we didn’t know. It was just tough to find out anything about them,” Trottier said. “This is going to be our way of staying that one step ahead.”