Prosecutions in Indian Country: Increase in Prosecutions

Increase in Indian Country Prosecutions
by Dennis K. Burke, U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona

Dennis K. Burke, U.S. Attorney for the District of ArizonaMore violent criminals are being prosecuted in Indian Country than ever before. This unprecedented activity by the United States Attorney Offices and our federal and tribal law enforcement partners is improving public safety in Indian Country day by day.

While we can and should do more, the bottom line is this: our efforts are paying dividends. In Arizona, alone, between 2009 and 2010, we increased the number of cases charged in Indian Country by 5 percent. We are on track this year to increase the number of prosecutions by more than 10 percent.

Arizona, with 22 federally recognized tribes, has one of the largest population of Native Americans. In other regions of the country – which may prosecute a much smaller number of Indian Country cases overall – prosecutions have greatly increased, almost doubling in some instances.

That noted, here are some of the key steps we are taking in Arizona and other districts that serve Indian Country to increase those numbers even more:

Better Trained Law Enforcement

We have embarked upon a monumental training program the likes of which has never been tried before anywhere in the United States.  In the last year, Assistant U.S. Attorneys in my district have cross-trained over 400 Arizona tribal officers in federal criminal procedures better equipping them for an assortment of investigations. Additionally, across the nation, more than 730 officers serving and protecting Indian Country have been federally trained with more being certified every day. Just in South Dakota -- which has seven reservations and the third highest population density of American Indians in the nation – there are now more than 100 federally trained officers.

This is critical. Once certified as federal law enforcement officers, tribal police can then refer cases directly to us creating a more seamless process. This certification also helps to discourage assaults against tribal officers --- if the officer is operating in a federal capacity, any assault against them is a federal offense. 


In the last year and a half, I have implemented policies in Arizona to ensure better communication and cooperation between the Assistant United States Attorneys in the office and tribal law enforcement.  AUSAs meet regularly with tribal law enforcement and tribal prosecutors.  Once a case is referred to our office, AUSAs are tasked with making timely charging decisions, as well as requests for further investigation or information.  

More Federal Prosecutors for Indian Country

In response to my request, last year, Attorney General Holder provided funding for five additional Federal prosecutors to work exclusively in Arizona Indian Country, the most ever awarded at one time in the history of the Department.  There are approximately two dozen other specially designated Indian Country prosecutors at work or being added to other districts across the country.

We also successfully worked with FBI and the Arizona Department of Public Safety to greatly speed up the lab analysis of crime scene evidence in Arizona Indian Country resulting in cases being resolved faster thereby taking dangerous people off the streets quicker while protecting victims sooner.

Partnering with Tribal Prosecutors

Our office is also actively recruiting tribal prosecutors from several Arizona tribes to work alongside federal prosecutors in federal court in cases arising in their communities.  This will help tribal officials ensure that their prosecution priorities -- whether it’s domestic violence, drugs smuggling, or anything else -- are addressed.  At the same time, in respect for Tribal sovereignty, we are working to ensure that Tribal courts retain authority to sentence defendants to multiple sentences for multiple offenses.  

In a remote tribal community like the Navajo Nation, with roughly 320 sworn officers covering a reservation more than 22,000 square miles in three states, we recognize that we must do more to assure that victims of crime get the justice that they are entitled. That is our goal, it’s a top priority, and we are making progress.


Attorney General Eric Holder set a new course for law enforcement in Indian Country when, just over a year and half ago, he said:  “The public safety challenges we face in Indian Country will not be solved by a single grant or a single piece of legislation. There is no quick fix…We need to continue our efforts with federal, state and tribal partners to identify solutions to the challenges we face, and work to implement them.”

We have taken that mission to heart, and we recognize that there is much more work to do. Only a few days ago, the Navajo Nation lost one of their finest when Police Sgt. Darrell Curley was shot and killed in the line of duty. Sgt. Curley was responding to a domestic violence call, which remains one of our most pressing and challenging concerns in Indian Country. Our hearts go out to Sgt. Curley’s family and colleagues as they face this incomprehensible tragedy.

This is why my office – and the entire Department of Justice – is so strongly committed to improving the quality of law enforcement and justice provided to members of the Indian Country communities throughout the country.  This commitment is one that is in keeping with the Federal Government’s trust responsibility for those communities. We have made tremendous strides in improving training, communication and increasing prosecutions throughout those communities.  We will not stop there.  We will continue to look for new ways to continue to improve the quality of justice provided.