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Court rules in favor of Oglala Sioux Tribe for law enforcement funding

The United States District Court for South Dakota has ruled that the federal government has a duty to help fund law enforcement in the Oglala Sioux Tribe based on treaties signed in the 1800s.

The ruling came May 23 after a hearing back in February. The Tribe had sued several officials in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, calling for more funding and preliminary relief for understaffed law enforcement on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

“We are hopeful the United States abides by the Court’s direction immediately, and provides the Tribe with the resources needed to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis on the Pine Ridge Reservation as soon as possible,” OST President Frank Star Comes Out said in a press release.

Pine Ridge is one of the largest reservations in the country, larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. According to court documents, OST law enforcement received almost 134,000 emergency 911 calls in Pine Ridge in 2021 from the estimated 40,000 people living and working in the reservation.

“At any given time, because only six to eight (sometimes fewer) tribal police officers are on duty to respond to emergency calls, many 911 calls on the Reservation are abandoned, not properly investigated, and in turn involve crimes that are not prosecuted,” the court documents read.

The Tribe argued they needed at least 112 officers to effectively serve the reservation but only have funding for less than half that number, hiring on average less than 50 officers to cover the entirety of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

In 2021, OST officials requested to re-negotiate their law enforcement contracts with the BIA. They asked for $9.6 million in law enforcement funding, including additional funds to support a school resource officer program and drug dog team, and $2.2 million to expand criminal investigation services, including drug enforcement, missing and murdered Indigenous persons and internal affairs programs.

The Tribe received letters back from the BIA in January 2022 telling them to revise their proposals to meet the funding amounts given under the previous contracts and to remove requests for additional programs.

After Star Comes Out and the tribal council met with BIA officials in person in March 2022, the Tribe was sent two more letters from the BIA only agreeing to provide the same funding as in previous contracts: $4 million for law enforcement and $1.3 million for criminal investigations. The BIA also refused to provide funding for the requested extra programs, saying these programs were ineligible for individual tribes, instead provided nationwide by the BIA itself.

Roberto Lange, chief judge of the South Dakota District Court, ruled that the 1825, 1851 and 1868 treaties made with the tribes put some responsibility on the U.S. government to provide law enforcement and protection for reservations.

“The passage of time and previous disregard of such treaty provisions as those establishing the Great Sioux Reservation does not render the treaty meaningless,” he said.

Lange ordered the Tribe and the BIA to work together to revise the contract proposals to find the funding “necessary to satisfy the United States' treaty-based duty to the Tribe concerning protection and law enforcement support and cooperation.”

He also ordered the BIA to reassess the population estimate of Pine Ridge that in part previously determined the Tribe’s budget for law enforcement, which hasn’t been updated since 1999.

Algin Young, OST police chief, thanked the officers, investigators and 911 dispatchers at the Oglala Department of Public Safety in a press release May 25.

“I look forward to working cooperatively with the Tribe’s leadership and representatives of the federal government to redress the ongoing public safety crisis on the Reservation, and urge federal officials to take immediate action to comply with the Court’s decision,” he said.

Jordan is a senior English and journalism major at SDSU in Brookings. She is from De Smet, South Dakota. She is based out of the Sioux Falls studio.