U.S. Atty R. Trent Shores, Choctaw, on new justice initiatives in Indian Country

R. Trent Shores talks about new initiatives to create greater Tribal Access to federal crime database info and more

R. Trent Shores, Choctaw Nation, is the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma who was sworn into office in September 2017. As described on the United States Department of Justice website, Shores is the chief federal law enforcement officer responsible for all federal criminal prosecutions and civil litigation involving the United States in the Northern District of Oklahoma, an area covering eleven counties and including fourteen federally recognized Indian tribes.

U.S. Attorney Shores with Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2018. Courtesy photo: office of U.S. Attorney Shores

As chair of the Native American Issues Subcommittee — a select group of U.S. Attorneys responsible for championing national policy in Indian Country — Shores has recently been party to a huge announcement in Indian Country: 25 tribal nations have recently been granted access to national and federal crime databases through what the DOJ calls the Tribal Access Program or TAP. The program significantly increases the law enforcement outreach and collaboration between tribes and state and federal agencies.

Additionally, Shores spoke about an initiative with tribes to prosecute within both tribal courts and federal courts, bridging a gap that has long existed in Indian Country.

See the Department of Justice news release posted in Indian Country Today related to this interview: DOJ, DOI announce major expansions of Tribal access to federal crime databases

Vincent Schilling: The Department of the Interior and the Department of Justice have teamed up to grant increased tribal access to crime information databases. How are you involved in all this?

Trent Shores: As the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma, I have the honor of working with 14 federally-recognized tribes in Northeastern Oklahoma. I want to ensure they have the benefit of the latest and greatest technology. In today's day and age, access to that information is needed for effective law enforcement. This ensures tribal officers and state or local officers have access to information so they can be aware — and for officer safety when they've pulled somebody over. When they're approaching the subject, they need to know who it is that they're talking to.

I'm also the chair of the Native American Issues subcommittee, which is the longest-standing subcommittee that advises the Attorney General on matters that pertain to justice law policy and Indian Country. It consists of all of the U.S. attorneys that have Indian Country within their jurisdictions.

We identified four priorities for our subcommittee to tackle while we held our jobs and one of those priorities was law enforcement resources. As we met and discussed challenges to Indian Country justice, almost consistent across the board, our group of U.S. attorney's believed that Indian Country needed more resources. That's in the way of manpower when it comes to officers and boots on the ground, that also comes in the way of technology and capability and access to information.

Vincent Schilling: What was the specific solution in granting more access to information to tribes?

Trent Shores: The Tribal Access Program. It supports good policing and we've already seen it have a positive impact on Indian Country.

Vincent Schilling: In a press release from the Department of Justice — the DOJ recently funded an additional 25 tribes to give them access to these Tribal Access Program (TAP) informational databases. I think it was 48 to 72 now, right?

Trent Shores: That is correct. You didn't tell me there was going to be math during the call this morning. I did go to law school though (laughs.)

Vincent Schilling: (laughs) Ok, great, I've got the numbers right. So I've been studying this for a while and I think there would be two immediate trains of thought. Some people will say, ‘there are 573 federally-recognized tribes. This access to information increase from 48 to 72 is about 50 percent, but there are more tribes than 72 who should have access to this information.’ We want to applaud every bit of access to information that's increasing. But of course, you also want to acknowledge that there are 500+ more tribes.

Trent Shores: I think everyone would agree that more is almost always better. If we had infinite resources and money than that would be great to hand out, you know, the Tribal Access Program kiosks to all 573 federally recognized tribes, but I think there are a few things that to put it into context.

This Native American Issue Subcommittee — this group of U.S. attorneys working with the office of Tribal Justice — We believe that adding these twenty-five tribes and getting up to 72 is a significant step. We believe that in all of those jurisdictions, there's going to be improved law enforcement services. This provision of law enforcement services will be facilitated by the Tribal Access Program (TAP.) I will tell you that with the finite resources that we have, I think that this is a wonderful decision to allocate the money for the TAP program in this regard. I hope that we can expand it next year even more. I think that 25, of course, is better than none, and we're going in the right direction.

I'd also note that not all 573 federally recognized tribes have problems with access to information. Not all of them have Tribal lands over which they have jurisdiction or a police force. There are such things as landless tribes. A large portion of those 573 may be located in California or Alaska and when you look at the diversity of Indian Country and jurisdiction between say an Alaska Native Village versus the Great Plains tribes, that have reservations versus Oklahoma. In Oklahoma currently, we don't have any reservations, but you have a regular practice of cross deputization agreements.

If we look at the Cherokee Nation, for example, they are a Tribal Access Program (TAP) tribe and they fall within the Northern District where I'm located. The Tribal Access Program has made a difference for them, but they also have I believe over 60 cross deputization agreements with state and local partners. And so there's also access in that regard for them and not all tribes have that experience though. So when we look at where the Tribal Access Program (TAP) kiosks are being allocated, of course, it's need-based and in particular and it's also capability-based. We want to ensure that those kiosks are going somewhere where they can be put to good use.

So to get to your original question, I think having 72 out of the 573 is significant coverage.

Vincent Schilling: In terms of getting access to information, I think of the time I provided coverage to the 30th-anniversary commemoration of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. A former commissioner said one of their biggest days was when they finally had access to tribal databases and the process of gaining this access was a massive undertaking for them.

Trent Shores: It is. Sometimes we focus across the board in this world, it seems too much on the negative. We forget to champion the positive or the good works. I've been a career prosecutor with the Justice Department for the last 10 years and the first five years of my career I was at the Office of Tribal Justice. I'm a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. So, I think good policing, good law enforcement, good responsible, prosecuting, maintaining that trust responsibility and the justice arena — that transcends politics and administrations and that is what the Tribal Access Program is. It's not just going out to each individual tribe and plugging in the kiosk and assuming everybody knows how it works. It is a significant process. You have the kiosks themselves that must be installed and then there is training that occurs.

Vincent Schilling: You keep referring to the term kiosk? I think of a guy who has a small center aisle store selling watches at the mall.

Trent Shores: Think of a giant TV screen with a camera on top. They have a kiosk at the Department of Justice in DC and they can do remote training from there or in DC when tribal representatives come in on how to use the Tribal Access Programs.

An example of a TAP Kiosk Workstation, according to the Department of Justice: "The DOJ's Integrated Workstations feature a computer, palm and fingerprint scanner, camera, flatbed scanner, and printer to provide access to and enter data into national crime information systems." - Image courtesy DOJ

To explain, the TAP kiosk is a database console where people can tap into the National Security Administration (NSA,) the FBI's Criminal Justice Information System from the National Crime Information Center, the Sex Offender Registration database and more. There's a number of databases to tap into. They can upload information or download information from the kiosk.

Vincent Schilling: If someone has committed a crime in a tribal area and you upload their information, that's going to connect to all those organizations all at once?

Trent Shores: Yes, Instantaneously. So think about it in this context. One of the conversations we have right now, is what do we do regarding missing women or missing children in Indian Country? If you do not have access to National criminal databases or you don't have the ability to upload that information, there is going to be a delay in your ability to disseminate that information.

However, in the context of maybe an Amber alert — if you can immediately upload that information from the tribal police station or the tribal justice center, and it immediately is then disseminated to all area, regional, local, state, tribal, federal, law enforcement. You are going to have a much better chance of finding or identifying that individual before harm may come to them.

There's a great story. There was a Montana tribe who was inputting one of their very first individuals that they had apprehended into the Tribal Access Program and lo and behold, when they uploaded this person's information into TAP, they learned that there was also an outstanding warrant because this individual was a sex offender who had failed to register under the sex offender registration notification act. Now, had they not had the access to the national criminal database, then they would not have known that. And that, of course, is going to impact, whether you release somebody, or whether you know what kind of bond is there.

Vincent Schilling: Considering all you’ve told me, if you have 25 more of these TAP database kiosks at different tribes. That is huge.

Trent Shores: It really is. I think the on the ground impact is just going to be huge. When you put in a protective order, there are people that should not have firearms due to a misdemeanor crime or domestic violence. So now when tribal officers have access to that information, they may be better equipped to handle a domestic violence situation that they encounter.

Vincent Schilling: Are there any other efforts outside of the Tribal Access Program?

Trent Shores: Yes, We gave a $437,000 plus dollars to four different tribes for the SAUSA initiative, meaning the Special Assistant United States Attorney.

SAUSA is a tribal prosecutor that prosecutes cases in federal court and in tribal court. So now we can have a tribal prosecutor who maybe hears things from tribal police or from victims who report directly to a tribal justice center. It can help to bring those cases to the attention of the U.S. Attorney's office or a himself or herself. They can bring those cases to be prosecuted.

One of the most disheartening things that when I started at DOJ in 2003, the violent crime rate was that Native Americans are victims of violent crimes at more than two times that of any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. And when I became chair of the Native American Issue Subcommittee last year, that statistic was the same — that is not right. I hope that we can find a solution during my tenure, during my opportunity to make a difference because I really want to change it. And I think programs like TAP and SOUSA will help.

Vincent Schilling: Anything else you’d like to add?

I'd like to recognize Tracy Toulou, he does a great job advocating for the improvement and the quality of justice in Indian Country and it's my honor and my pleasure to work with him now as chair of the Native American Issue Subcommittee to partner with the Office of Tribal Justice.

United States Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma R. Trent Shores and associate Tracy Toulou from the Office of Tribal Justice. Courtesy photo.

One of the questions you asked earlier was, is this enough? You know, we want more resources because we want to bring better justice to Indian Country. We, we want to be able to deliver better a quality justice to the tribal communities that some of us have lived in or worked in. I get very passionate about that.

Indian Country issues I never thought should be political issues, you know, they're often driven by law and legal obligations and responsibilities and people on both sides of the aisle. I look at our Constitution and I see that there was only one group of people that are set aside and mentioned, and that is Native Americans. When we talk about Congress's plenary power, our founding fathers thought, ‘How do we work with the Indian tribes?’

For more information about the DOJ's Tribal Access Program kiosk / workstation, navigate to apublic .pdf document of a former presentation on the program here.


Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter -@VinceSchilling

Email -vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com

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