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U.S. Attorney Mercer explains his office's role in Indian Country


ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATTION - Representatives from a number of agencies met Thursday night at the new Stone Child College campus to discuss law enforcement issues on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.

The meeting, which was open to the public, attracted few visitors not closely affiliated with law enforcement agencies. Atendees included a veritable who's who of federal prosecutors, state and tribal judges, tribal council members and law enforcement officers. During the three-hour meeting, representatives from the various agencies expressed their views on current law enforcment efforts on the reservation, and ways to improve interagency cooperation.

A number of items were addressed, including jurisdictional concerns, drug problems, sentencing guidelines, juvenile crime, and civil rights issues.

U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer opened the discussion with a general outline of the his office's priorities and responsibilities.

The federal government acts in a trust relationship with Indian reservations, he said. The government investigates and prosecutes any felony cases occurring within the boundaries of reservations.

Fighting terrorism is his office's main priority, he said, adding that gun safety and drug interdiction are priorities two and three.

Terrorism is "something we need to be vigilant of," Mercer said. " We have significant infrastructure and a huge border up here."

The federal government has also taken measures to reduce gun-related crimes and stem the flow of illegal drugs, he said. During the past decade, the federal government has greatly increased the number of resources dedicated to fighting crime on Indian reservations in Montana, he said.

In 1994, the U.S. Attorney's Office had 11 lawyers in the state, only two of whom were assigned to Indian reservations, Mercer said.

"Our resources have changed. Two people wasn't an adequate commitment to meet our responsibility."

Today, five prosecutors are assigned to handle that task, meaning crimes that went unprosecuted before are now being brought to court, Mercer said.

The FBI's priorities have also changed, he said. Whereas five years ago agents investigated mainly violent crimes, today they have the resources to investigate a broad variety of crimes, he said.

Mercer said white-collar crimes are on the rise and that the FBI has agents specially trained to handle embezzlement cases.

"They're complicated and involve a lot of paper work," he said, adding that the federal government is "particularly interested in investigating tribal embezzlement cases."

Many of the underlying problems on the reservations can be attributed to illegal drugs, Mercer said. Drugs are responsible for spawning other offenses including assaults, homicides, and burglaries, he added.

"There's little doubt we haven't won the war on drugs by cutting off supply. We've put a lot of people in jail but it hasn't satisfied the need to eliminate the demand," he said.

One of the most effective tools law enforcement has is handing down stiff penalties to drug dealers, Mercer said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lori Harper Suek said drug dealers are often enticed by the lure of easy money.

"Drug trafficking is a business," she said. "These are business people. They are entrepreneurs. Make no mistake - they are in it for the money."

Chippewa Cree Tribal Council member John "Chance" Houle agreed with Mercer and Suek, saying many dealers sell drugs to finance their addiction.

"Our people have problems big time," he said. "They get in the game to supply their habits. Our property crimes are just enormous right now."

Tribal council chairman Alvin Windy Boy Sr. affirmed the tribe's resolve to reduce drug use on the reservation.

"As tribal leader here in Rocky Boy, my number one concern is drugs," he said.

Hill County Attorney and newly appointed state district judge David Rice encouraged police to aggressively pursue drug dealers.

"The money is too easy in this business," he said. "We have to get a grip on it."

Chemical dependancy is a major issue on the reservation and the surrounding areas, Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera said.

"What really disturbs me is that 80 percent of my clientele in the jail are Indian people," he said. "The community needs to take a look at that and find a way to deal with it."

Violence often goes hand-in-hand with substance abuse, Szudera said, adding that assaults in Box Elder are a common occurrence.

Tribal Judge Gilbert Belgarde attributed violence on the reservation to having a large number of people reside in a very small area.

"We have these ghetto-like places where people can't get along," he said. "It's like living in a shoebox. It's hard and it's tough."

Mercer said juvenile crime has increasingly become a problem on the reservation. The federal system is swamped with youthful offenders, and prosecutors are barred from discussing those cases with the public, he added.

"The reality is that we can't talk about them," he said. "In that respect, the system breaks down. It's difficult to deter crime if you can't talk about it."

Houle said the tribe has taken steps to address juvenile crime on the reservation, including enforcing curfew restrictions and hiring a juvenile probation officer.


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