The South Dakota U.S. Attorney’s Office will revitalize its efforts to address Indian Country public safety through a new outreach plan intended to reduce the staggering crime levels in local tribal communities, the state’s top federal prosecutor announced earlier this month.
Brendan Johnson, who has led the Sioux Falls-based U.S. Attorney’s office since October, said he will launch a two-year pilot program this fall that will put a federal prosecutor on a South Dakota reservation at least three days a week. His office also will bring on three prosecutors to handle Indian Country prosecutions exclusively and increase communication and coordination with tribal communities as part of the new strategy, he said.
About 9 percent of South Dakota’s population is made up of American Indians, who mostly live in the state’s nine reservations. But Indian Country crime accounts for about 55 percent of the criminal caseload in the U.S. Attorney’s office.
“The Community Prosecution Strategy will not solve all of our law enforcement challenges in tribal communities, but it is my hope that it signals a new era of government-to-government relationships and a concerted effort to address public safety cooperatively,” Johnson wrote in an Aug. 5 letter announcing the initiative.
Johnson, who is the chairman of the Native American issues subcommittee of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee, made fighting Indian Country crime a top priority when he came into office almost a year ago.
The U.S. Attorney and prosecutors from his office held a conference with tribal leaders and state officials in February to solicit ideas on how to better combat crime. Johnson said the dialogue between tribal and government leaders laid the groundwork for his strategy.
“The experience confirmed the universal view that tribal communities must become safe places to live and strengthened the relationships among those committed to that ideal,” Johnson wrote in the 2009 annual report for the U.S. Attorney’s office.
The cornerstone of the new strategy is the pilot program that will make a federal prosecutor a regular presence on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which accounted for more than a third of Indian Country cases brought by the U.S. Attorney’s office in 2009. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregg Peterman, who will lead the program, is responsible for improving the tribe’s legal system and strengthening the relationship between the American Indian community and federal law enforcement.
Peterman has more than 12 years experience working on criminal matters in the Pine Ridge Reservation. He also worked in Russia with the Justice Department’s Overseas Professional Development Assistance and Training program, which posts federal prosecutors abroad to help create effective judicial systems in budding democracies.
“I remember thinking 10 years ago we should do a detail in Indian Country,” Peterman told the Rapid City Journal, which first reported the strategy. “If we can do that overseas, I thought, why are we not helping communities in this country who need assistance improving the function of their tribal justice system?”
In addition to posting Peterman on the Pine Ridge Reservation and hiring three more prosecutors to handle Indian country cases exclusively, the U.S. Attorney’s office will now allow some tribal prosecutors to work on federal cases as Special Assistant U.S. Attorneys. The U.S. Attorney’s office will also hold regular meetings with tribal members and mandate cultural training for prosecutors to help them become more attuned to the concerns of South Dakota American Indians.
Theresa Two Bulls, president of the Ogala Sioux Tribe, which is on the Pine Ridge Reservation, told Main Justice that she supports the new efforts of the U.S. Attorney’s office to combat Indian country crime. She said ensuring the safety of American Indians on her reservation is vital.
“I feel that projects like this will help them see what goes on in the reservation,” said Two Bulls, a former tribal prosecutor.
Johnson is the second U.S. Attorney in the administration of President Barack Obama to implement a community initiative in his district.
Western District of Virginia U.S. Attorney Timothy Heaphy launched a community outreach program in July. The U.S. Attorney hired a former Roanoke councilwoman to meet with local organizations and immigrant communities to engage them in dialogue about effective law enforcement and let the groups know how the Justice Department can help them.
The community outreach initiatives draw on Attorney General Eric Holder’s work as D.C. U.S. Attorney from 1993 to 1997. He started a community prosecution project in the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office, which assigns prosecutors to different neighborhoods to meet with the residents and handle their cases.
“There’s a network of us that all believe in this kind of holistic approach to community problem solving, and I think you are going to see other offices get involved in this kind of thing as well,” Heaphy told Main Justice in July.