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What Is Tribal Law Enforcement?

Most Native American tribal nations have their own law enforcement.
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  • Written By: Renee Booker
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 25 September 2014
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Within the United States, there are actually three different levels of law enforcement — federal, state, and tribal. Despite efforts by the federal government to assimilate the indigenous people it found living on the land many years ago, some of the tribes retained their cultural and legal autonomy and independence. As a result, many tribal nations are considered domestic dependent nations in the United States, as they retain more sovereignty than the states, but less than a separate, independent foreign nation. Most tribal nations, therefore, have their own tribal law enforcement as well as tribal courts.

The relationship between the federal government, state governments, and tribal governments within the Unites States is complicated at best. Jurisdiction over a crime or lawsuit will depend on the tribe in question, the crime or basis of the lawsuit, and whether or not the parties involved are Native American or non-Native American. Although most Native American nations have their own tribal law enforcement agency, a person arrested on tribal land may be prosecuted by the tribe, the federal government, or the state government. There are no hard and fast rules regarding jurisdiction for crimes on tribal land, but, in general, tribes may have jurisdiction over less serious Native American crime, while the state or federal government has jurisdiction over other situations.

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Regardless of who ultimately has jurisdiction to prosecute a crime, many tribes have tribal law enforcement agencies that are legally responsible for policing the tribal lands and enforcing the laws. A tribal law enforcement officer is no different than a local, state, or federal law enforcement officer in that he or she may make arrests, question suspects, and generally keep the peace in his or her jurisdiction. Funding for tribal law enforcement is provided primarily from the federal government.

Although tribal law enforcement agencies are expected to perform the same tasks that any other law enforcement agency is required to perform, they often have more territory to cover with less resources than other law enforcement agencies. Tribal lands are often vast and wild, and tribal law enforcement officers do not have the assistance of other law enforcement agencies when needed as many other police agencies do. In tribal lands, there are, on average, less than half the officers available to serve the same population as there are on non-tribal lands. In addition, tribal officers must understand, and work within, the complicated web of jurisdictional issues that are unique to tribal lands.

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