The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms would get new marching orders under this bill

A House bill would change the way the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) would deal with tribal police departments. It would give them easier access to duty weapons by eliminating ATF regulations that don’t apply to other police departments. For details, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the bill’s sponsor, South Dakota Republican Congressman Dusty Johnson.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin What is the problem here with tribal police departments and their access to weapons?

Dusty Johnson Well, there are lots of problems that law enforcement agencies in Indian Country face. This is not one of the top three or four, but still, I think it’s an important one really for two reasons. Operationally, we’re denying these officers access to the same kind of duty weapons that other police departments have. And then we’re also, in many cases, charging them taxes when they purchase those weapons, which other law enforcement agencies don’t have to pay. So that’s an operational problem. That’s dollars out of their pockets. That’s fewer tools for them to use. But then the second issue is that this is not an appropriate government-to-government relationship. We are called to, in the Constitution, in case law and practice to make sure that we’re treating these governments with an appropriate government-to-government relationship, treating them as lesser police departments, I think is sending the wrong message about this important relationship.

Tom Temin And in general, do tribal police departments have the same sort of training and criminal justice background that you find in other police departments?

Dusty Johnson Yes, there can be an exceptionally high level of professionalism within many tribal departments. It varies from state to state, and in South Dakota, I know they are invited to participate in the same law enforcement training program that other law enforcement agencies and officers in South Dakota take part in. There are certainly federal training programs as well. The biggest problem, I think, facing so many of these departments are just resources. You look at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. This is a reservation the size of Connecticut. And it comprises a number of counties that are among the poorest in the United States of America. They’ve got 33 slots for law enforcement officers to take care of this massive community. Many of those positions are not filled in any given week. And so resources are a serious problem. I wouldn’t allege that my bill goes anywhere near enough to solving that problem. But again, it does help on the margins. We need lots of efforts like that.

Tom Temin Well, why does ATF levy them for the purchase of weapons? Is that because they are required to by existing law or is that policy of ATF?

Dusty Johnson Well, it has been the policy. I don’t know enough about the back story about why they’re interpreting some statutes the way they are. It’s a relatively nuanced determination. I mean, they are not charging some law enforcement agencies that tax. Others, they are charging them. It really turns on whether or not they are cross deputized with the federal law enforcement agency. And I don’t understand why there would be that language in the statute if there is. But in any event, my bill was cleared up.

Tom Temin Right. You could probably spend months and months and never get to the bottom of it. That’s just the way some of these longstanding agency bureaucracies and their processes operate. And there is also a provision in the bill having to do with machine guns prior to 1986. And what’s going on there?

Dusty Johnson Yeah, again, there are a number of weapons that are denied these law enforcement agencies. And this is mostly about equality and parity for me. I just don’t like the idea that law enforcement agencies off reservation are allowed access to certain tools that law enforcement agencies on an Indian reservation are denied. I think if we’re going to be respectful, we need to make sure that we’ve got parity in that treatment.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with South Dakota Republican Representative Dusty Johnson. And I guess, as you allude, this leads to bigger issues with tribal governments, tribal administration, and these are centuries old issues. What do you think are the top problems that the federal government could help Indian and reservation governments with?

Dusty Johnson Well, when I visit Indian Country in South Dakota, I’m talking tribal leaders on a regular basis. They talk to me, I mean, first off, about law enforcement and about resource adequacy and about how much more dangerous their communities are because the federal government is not making good on its obligation to provide. It is a serious problem. Secondly, they talk about a highly related issue, which is how so many drugs are finding their way into Indian country, destroying these communities. That is not unique to Indian country. I mean, all of our country, are dealing with 100,000 drug overdose deaths a year. Fentanyl that is ripping apart families. Meth that is doing the same. But the problem is even more acute on reservation. And I’m often told, gosh, we got to do what we can to stop that flow of drugs over the southern border. Third, I would mention, roads and other infrastructure. Again, this is a resource adequacy issue and it is holding back development in Indian Country. Those are the big ones that are brought up regularly, although certainly they’re not the only ones.

Tom Temin And getting back to the law enforcement question in this crossed deputization, I mean, if a tribal police force is feeling that it needs to have reinforcements or more help in general, can they call, say, the local county police where they’re operating or the state police and they’ll get augmented response? Is that something that happens?

Dusty Johnson Yes. The interesting thing, the police in Indian Country, in South Dakota, they get along. I mean, they understand that they have one another’s backs and there is a high degree of professionalism and respect. Sometimes the politicians can get in the way. Right. I mean, I feel like the law enforcement agents, they understand that they have a shared mission to keep communities safe. And reservations are so often a patchwork quilt of jurisdictions. You may have in a relatively small area, you may have game, fish and parks officers, you may have highway patrol. You would have a county sheriff, you would have federal BIA, you would have tribal officers through a tribally administered law enforcement agency. But listen, the cops understand they need to work together to keep communities safe. There are certainly times where that jurisdictional patchwork quilt makes their jobs more difficult. But they want to do the right thing. They want to work together.

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