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Published April 26 2012

US attorneys aim to increase public safety on reservations

BISMARCK – It’s “outrageous” and “unacceptable” that one in three Native American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, North Dakota’s U.S. attorney said Thursday.

Tim Purdon and U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole spoke about efforts to increase public safety on Indian reservations during a conference in Bismarck and on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation this week.

Death certificates on some reservations in the nation show women are murdered at a rate more than 10 times the national average, Cole said. These rapes and murders are often the “all too familiar pattern” of unaddressed domestic violence, he said.

“This is simply unacceptable, and we must all do everything we can to end it,” he said.

The Department of Justice is supporting legislation that would give tribes the authority to prosecute non-Indians who engage in domestic violence against tribal members on the reservations, he said. The current law “leaves tribes powerless to address violence before it escalates,” he said.

Purdon said he’s never forgotten his first experience on a reservation nearly 20 years ago and how seeing residents living in isolation and poverty affected him.

“I said to myself, ‘How is this possible in the United States of America?’ ” he said. “How is it possible American citizens in places like Cannon Ball (on the Standing Rock reservation) are forced to live in these sorts of conditions?”

After becoming U.S. attorney in 2010, Purdon said he wasn’t going to buy into cynicism both on and off the reservation that the issues are “just the way it is.”

He said he was determined to make the reservations safer.

Prosecutions have increased 78 percent from 2009 to 2011 due to an effort to take on more cases, he said. His office also started a program to help first responders on reservations identify signs of sexual and physical abuse of children.

One crime prevention effort collected 60 pounds of prescription drugs from the reservations by offering drop-off sites, Purdon said. His office also will create a public corruption and white collar team to ensure resources allocated to tribes go to the programs intended, he said.

Every U.S. attorney office with reservations in their state has a plan to address specific tribal public safety challenges and has met with tribes to develop and address these plans, Cole said.

Efforts to improve public safety are about more than reducing crime, Cole said.

“This is also about peace of mind and a brighter future for everybody in Indian Country,” he said.

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.

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