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Tribal Police as a Solution for African American Communities

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jay Jurie
May 5, 2017

Subjugation and control of African American communities by external police forces traces back to Colonial era slave patrols. Oppressive police practices touched off some of the major urban riots of the late 1960s. Events such as the 1992 videotaped police beating of Rodney King, the 1997 torture of Abner Louima and the 2009 death of Oscar Grant served to keep police and African American relations in the spot light of public awareness.

Black Lives Matter arose twenty years after the King incident as a direct result of perceived legal system indifference to the killing of unarmed 17 year old Trayvon Martin, and the cumulative effect of perceived legal system indifference. After significant social upheaval following the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri police killing of unarmed 18 year old Michael Brown, a Department of Justice study of Ferguson’s legal system and municipal procedures reported a pattern of racially driven bias, abuse and exploitation.

Police have taken various steps to supposedly ameliorate discriminatory practices. Ostensibly aimed at crime reduction, programs such as Operation Hammer in Los Angeles and Stop and Frisk in New York City reinforced negative stereotypes and perpetuated systemic abuse. Taken together or separately, other measures, including the hiring of more African American officers, the creation of civilian review boards, improved training and the use of body cameras, have failed to rectify the underlying systemic problem.

However, although not easily ameliorated, this problem is not intractable. An unlikely place, the nation’s Native American reservations, has produced a more comprehensive solution. Under treaty obligations and federal law, Native Americans have semi-sovereign status and this authority has been used to form tribal law enforcement and justice systems, including police agencies and courts.

There are many long standing models around the country, including the Miccosukee Police Department in South Florida, the Navajo Nation Police in the Four Corners region and the Yavapai-Prescott Tribal Police in Arizona. In these locales, outside forces no longer conduct basic law enforcement functions. Law enforcement itself is directly accountable to the tribes themselves.

carFollowing those models, enabling legislation needs to be drafted under Federal auspices, possibly with the Justice Department as lead agency. Special local districts would be identified within which a specified population threshold of African-Americans are designated as eligible to create and operate their own police force, and possibly a court system capable of handling minor offenses. Once established, these districts would be financed through two funding sources.

First, some Federal startup funding would be available, particularly in the acquisition of public goods, such as police stations, maintenance facilities, vehicles, equipment and other necessities. Next, a representative percentage of the local tax base deployed for justice system purposes within existing jurisdictional boundaries would be reallocated to support efforts under the auspices of the district. Especially in lower income areas, where local funding might not fully support district operations, supplemental Federal funding would make up any potential shortfalls. Funding would be sufficient to provide for adequate level of service standards and requirements.

District governmental structure potentially would be among the most complicated programmatic arrangements. If left to pre-existing authority, that is, under the jurisdiction of an existing municipality or county, nothing would be resolved about creating and maintaining truly local control. The present proposal obviously moves beyond weak civilian oversight on one hand and domination by an existing police agency or local government on the other. A governing entity of residents elected from within the district would be requisite.

Ideally, this entity would take the form of a police commission. There are numerous existing examples of police commissions in parts of the U.S. and Europe, some of which are elected. In smaller districts, this commission would have responsibility for the hiring and oversight of a few constables, and in larger districts that same responsibility for a police chief. While preparation of the budget would be the responsibility of district staff, final review and approval would be vested with the commission. If there were to be a district court, the magistrates could either be appointed by the commission or might also be directly elected.

This solution is not a panacea for all the ills of low income minority communities. Police misconduct might continue to be problem, but if so, it would become a specific internal concern rather than one imposed from outside the district. As previously noted, care would need to be taken, such that district law enforcement wouldn’t simply become a different “separate but unequal” form of law enforcement. District based legal systems are one solution among many designed to improve the quality of life in targeted communities. Over time, demographic changes and social improvements would hopefully make the sorts of recommendations proposed here increasingly obsolete.

Until such time is reached, means must be found to assure greater accountability of law enforcement operations in minority communities. As shown through the Native American experience, expanded control through enhanced community autonomy is an essential key.

Author: Jay D. Jurie is Associate Professor of Public Administration and Planning with the School of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.  He holds a Ph.D. in Public Administration from Arizona State University at Tempe.  His areas of specialization and research interests include urban policy and urban and regional planning.

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