State and Tribal Officials Cite Law Enforcement Budget Constraints and Bakken Growth for Increasingly Dangerous Conditions on Reservations

(Poplar, Montana) – Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.) joined by Montana’s U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter and Ft. Peck Tribal Chairman A.T. “Rusty” Stafne, as well as tribal officials and local law enforcement officers addressed concerns over the growing threat of human trafficking in Indian Country at a listening session in Poplar, Montana on Thursday.

Panel members heard from many listening session participants who expressed concerns that tribal law enforcement officers are underfunded, underpaid, and ill-equipped to address the growing problems in the Bakken region. It was also noted that support services for survivors are relatively rare and also lack adequate funding.

“Tribal police departments lack the resources to investigate and detain human trafficking offenders. By no fault of their own, these departments are often ill-equipped to root out the players in trafficking rings that can span reservation, state, and national boundaries,” Tester said. “Because of the patchwork of tribal, state, and federal jurisdiction, tribes also often lack the ability to prosecute and appropriately punish offenders in tribal courts.”

Attorney General Cotter outlined the extent of the dangerous conditions that currently exist. “If you look around the rural regions of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, you would not expect to find 12 to 14 year old girls sold for sex on the internet or lured by an adult for sex or forced into a life of servitude by predators to sell their bodies to strangers,” Cotter said. “It is hard to imagine, but it is here in our region and this corruption occurs with too much frequency and is more prevalent than one would imagine.”

Law enforcement officials and tribal members alike emphasized the link between rising drug use and human trafficking. Plentiful jobs, and increasingly highly paid transient workers in the Bakken have attracted sophisticated drug and prostitution rings from other regions of the nation.

Senator Tester vowed to review federal response to the growing crisis. “We need to address this problem head-on. The new Violence Against Women Act that became law in this Congress is a good start. I co-sponsored this important legislation. It will allow tribes to regain some authority to prosecute crimes committed on reservations by non-Indians. But there is so much more to do.”