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Multi-Cultural Law Enforcement

The United States federal government recognizes more than 500 tribal governments inside country. These governments are dependent societies with a nationhood status and inherent powers of self governance. These powers entitle them to their laws as long as these laws are not contrary to the U.S. Constitution. It is because of these laws that sometimes a state police department with the jurisdiction bordering a Native American reservation is frustrated while policing. The paper examines the challenges that the state law enforcers face while policing alongside Native Americans.


Jurisdictional Challenges

A state officer policing along a Native American reservation land faces numerous jurisdictional challenges. It is due to a conflict of federal, state and tribe laws that force the officers to navigate these different bodies of law to determine what authority they should apply in a particular case (Carlson, 2013). The overlapping jurisdictional authority of the various law enforcement agencies complicates the task of policing. Tribal police have the power to handle crimes committed by Native Americans on their reservation lands. Moreover, the Major Crimes Act of 1885 granted the federal government the authority over major crimes occurring in Indian country (Carlson, 2013). They include murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, child abuse or neglect, rape, burglary, and robbery committed by a Native American against the person or property of another Native American or other person. Therefore, a state officer or a sheriff does not have the authority to interfere in cases within the scope of jurisdiction of either the tribal or federal law enforcers. The situation presents a challenge to a state police as he/she may be forced to watch a perpetrator in the Indian country escaping justice just because he/she lacks the jurisdiction to make an arrest.

The jurisdictional challenge that the state police officer may experience is further compounded by the several cases of failure to prosecute by federal officers who rarely take seriously crimes occurring on Native American lands. According to a United States Government Accountability Office study from 2005 to 2009, federal officers in the U.S. failed to arrest and prosecute 52 percent of all violent criminal matters referred to them from the Indian country. Of these, 67 percent were sexual abuse cases while 46 percent were assault cases (Carlson, 2013, p.358). Even though the federal officers do not make arrests, the state police are forced not to interfere because of jurisdictional limitations leading to criminals escaping justice. The solution could lie in granting these different law enforcers concurrent jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute.

Language and Cultural Barriers

A sheriff may have a problem understanding the language and culture of the Native Americans. Thanks to their culture, the natives may behave in a manner that the police may find unfamiliar. For example, their definition of a crime may be different (Amnesty International [AI], 2007). What is a crime to the state police may not be a crime according to the Native Americans’ culture? The barriers between the police and the natives may further be entangled by the Native Americans view that state officials display a pronounced lack of cultural sensitivity. It may make them refuse to cooperate with the state police whenever necessary.

Delays in Arrests

A county sheriff may also encounter the challenge of a delay in arrests. State officers have the exclusive jurisdiction to make arrests in the Indian country over crimes committed by non-Indians against non-Indians in the reservation lands (Carlson, 2013). In a case scenario upon a state officer deciding to seek the assistance of tribal police to arrest the perpetrators of crimes, the tribal police may delay in making the arrests. The lags may be intentional as the tribal police feel that the sheriff’s department is encroaching on its territory. Moreover, upon the prosecution of a criminal, the state police may require that the tribal police handle over any file or information they may have on a suspect. However, the tribal enforcement agency may substantially delay the information transfer, making it impossible for the state police to pursue a crime case as the statute of limitation on the offense expires. The lag in arrests could also be due to long and tiresome bureaucratic procedures.

Human Rights Violations

A state officer may also encounter human rights violations in the reservation lands. Unfortunately, many fundamental human rights such as the right to a fair hearing allow for culturally influenced forms of implementation (Owens, 2012). Consequently, states or tribes do not need to use the American jury to ensure a fair trial. A Native American prosecution and policing form of a fair trial could be very unjust to a non-member. A state sheriff may observe such a case but may be unable to stop the violations due to the fact that it is a matter beyond his jurisdiction.

Different Theories of Justice

A sheriff may also encounter problems caused by different views that Native Americans have on justice. Federal and state law enforcers subscribe to adversarial justice that proposes the use of arrests and prosecutions (Owens, 2012). However, adversarial justice may be foreign to the Native Americans as their justice is oriented towards rebuilding balance and good relations among the community members. Victims are restored to their economic and social well-being while offenders and their relatives strive to provide restitution to the victims (Owens, 2012). According to the tribal justice, when two warring parties meet they agree on a payment and the matter is declared to have ended. It may not be the case for every kind of offense, but the principle holds. As the Native American tribes want to control their justice system that reflects their community values, the situation may be a challenge to a state police who plans on arresting a criminal in the reservation lands in a case in which the state has jurisdiction.

There are also philosophical differences between the tribal and state police forces. The United States uses a professional model of policing that focuses on investigating and responding to criminal behavior (AI, 2007). Theirs is a centralized organizational hierarchy that insulates between state police and the community. However, the tribal police have a flat organizational hierarchy where they establish and maintain more contact with the people. In a case scenario, state police officers will find it to be challenging to investigate a crime in tribal lands, as their centralized organizational hierarchy will prevent them from interacting adequately with the natives to gather materials for investigating the offense.

Native’s Lack of Faith in the State Police

Another major problem a sheriff can face would be the lack of faith the Native Americans have with state and federal law enforcement officials. The Supreme Court in the 1978 case of Oliphant v. Suquamish stripped tribes of the right to arrest and prosecute non-Native Americans who commit felonies on the natives’ reservation lands (Owens, 2012, p.505). It followed an appeal by the plaintiff after the tribal court of the Suquamish Indian Reservation in Washington convicted him of assaulting a tribal officer and resisting arrest. Oliphant argued before the Supreme Court that because he was a non-Native American, even though he was a permanent resident of the reservation, he was not a subject to tribal criminal prosecution. The court basing its decision on the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 ruled for Oliphant and stripped the Suquamish police and court of the right to arrest and prosecutes non-Native offenders who violate tribal, state or federal laws in Indian country (Owens, 2012, p.505). Therefore, whenever a non-Indian commits a crime in the reservation lands, the natives may decide to deal with the case illegally using their tribal laws without involving the state police, as required by law. If the case does reach the state police, the Native Americans may refuse to cooperate in the investigation as most of them feel that their wasting time testifying, since the non-Natives would not be prosecuted anyway. One can safely conclude that the Native American’s lack of faith in the State police stems from the feeling that the state is discriminating against them, and the federal government not taking their cases seriously and the encroachment on tribal authority by the state officers.

Fear of Outsiders

The sheriff and his police department would have to deal with the issue caused by the fact that the Native Americans view them as outsiders. Consequently, it may encourage crime activity in the area. Native Americans are very protective of their people. It is for this reason that they tend to avoid the state justice system by simply non-participating in the investigations (AI, 2007). The natives may feel afraid that a tribal member, or even worse – relatives, could be sent to prison if they testify. If the family members to jail, the relatives will have to encounter negative social and economic repercussions. Consequently, a sheriff would lack witnesses for a case involving a Native American.



There are several problems that state law enforcers face while policing alongside Native Americans. They range from jurisdictional challenges, language and cultural barriers to different theories of justice. Congress, as a lawmaker, should advocate for concurrent jurisdiction between the federal, state and tribal law enforcers to arrest and prosecute all crimes. Hopefully, once the lawmakers enact legislation to recognize concurrent jurisdiction among the law enforcers, there would be a reduction in challenges that state police face in policing alongside Native Americans and other tribal communities.

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