Tribal officials on the Pine Ridge Reservation are searching for solutions to high rates of suicide and substance abuse.  Sen. John Thune is working with the tribe on those issues, and he believes a big part of the answer will be beefed-up law enforcement.

Thune, R-S.D., and Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., were on the Pine Ridge Reservation last week for meetings with tribal officials and other tribal members about the spikes in suicide rates, including some children, and ongoing drug and alcohol problems.

The congressional members heard calls for on-reservation treatment centers to help prevent suicides and deal with drug and alcohol addiction. And tribal police and courts officials outlined needs for more personnel and money to meet growing criminal justice challenging.

Thune says increased law enforcement presence and effectiveness will benefit all areas of life on the reservation.

“I think its starts there,” he said. “People can’t learn if they don’t feel safe. People can’t work if they don’t feel safe. And certainly elderly in a lot of those communities can’t go about their lives if they don’t feel safe.”

That doesn’t mean the treatment programs aren’t essential, he said. But the geographic and economic challenges on the reservation complicate solutions, Thune said.

“It’s pretty clear you’ve got to address the cause. And as was noted, most of these are status crimes, I’m mean they’re crimes committed by people who are on alcohol and drugs,” Thune said. “So the substance-abuse issues are really important.  And some of the things they talk about doing in terms of creating crisis centers are all well and good. But the reservations are so large and vast and people have trouble getting to one place. And that’s why I think the law enforcement thing and creating a safe environment is important.”

Thune said the budget situation in Washington, D.C., is challenging.  The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs deals with a wide variety of tribal requests and needs.  But the situation on the Pine Ridge Reservation deserves priority attention from federal officials, Thune said.

“It’s something we’ll have to get on the BIA about,” he said. “And I know they’ve got a lot of reservations around the country they’ve got to cover. But I’d be hard pressed to think there is a situation in more desperate need than we are in South Dakota, especially right now on Pine Ridge.”

Thune likes the idea of a surge in police officers on the Pine Ridge Reservation to reduce lawless behavior. He worked on a surge that added 20 officers to the Standing Rock Reservation in 2008, resulting in a thousand arrests and reducing violent crime there.

That surge took congressional action that was spearheaded by members from South Dakota and North Dakota. And at one point, some officers helping with the surge responded temporarily to law enforcement needs at Pine Ridge.  Thune is interested in working on the idea again.

Meanwhile, challenges continue. On a reservation the size of Pine Ridge, budget-related staffing shortages and communications problems can be especially dangerous to law enforcement. Oglala Tribe Police Chief Eugenio White Hawk said he doesn’t have enough officers to cover the eight districts and the flood of calls relayed to officers who usually work alone, far from backup.

“So each district that responds to traffic, the shortest time for backup will probably be, maybe, about a half hour,” White Hawk said. “Half an hour is probably about average that backup can come and assist an officer.”

Staffing and isolation are compounded by police-radio problems here and there across the reservation, White Hawk said.

“And presently we have some problems that are ongoing,” he said. “The radio in some of the districts aren’t working.”

Officers must sometimes rely only on spotty cell-phone service to communicate with dispatchers or other officers as they respond to calls that can include traffic problems, accidents, general assaults and domestic violence cases.

“And that’s pretty dangerous,” White Hawk said. “If you lose your cell service, you’re on your own.”