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The acting chief of police for the Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST) Department of Public Safety, John Pettigrew, told lawmakers on Tuesday, May 9, about the harsh realities of maintaining law and order on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwest South Dakota with a gross lack of funding.

During a hearing on the needs of Indian Country, Pettigrew told members of the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies he would leave behind an audio recording of a 911 call from the reservation that was too graphic to play publicly. 

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On the tape, the OST 911 officers hear a young mother being beaten by multiple men for more than an hour. Her arm, skull, ribs and leg were broken. She sustained several contusions, all of which required multiple medical procedures performed at an Indian Health Service (IHS) facility.

Pettigrew testified that his police department took 1.5 hours to respond to the 911 call due to a lack of funding. He went on to explain that OST tribal attorneys are reluctant to encourage reservation residents to get protective orders because protective orders are only as good as a police officer’s practical enforcement. 

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is home to the OST. The reservation comprises over 2.1 million acres of land–or 11,000 square miles–that is compared to the size of the state of Connecticut.

Pettigrew testified that in 2023 there were more than 165,799 calls received by his department in need of officers. In total, the police force only has 30 officers. 

“Due to our extreme shortage of officers, our average response time continues to be between 30 minutes and an hour. Medical clearances for an arrest, which is often required for a large percentage of our detainees, continue to exceed three hours, and our Indian Health Services (IHS) referred care cost for a single crime victim can easily exceed the cost of two officers’ salaries for a year,” Pettigrew told the Committee.

The lack of officers on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was cited by National Congress of American Indians President Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, during his State of Tribal Nations address in February. He said that there is so much need for public safety and justice in Indian Country that he does not know where to start. He called the situation an acute crisis that has been going on for decades and blamed inadequate funding. Macarro cited the federal standard the police officer-to-citizen ratio, which the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) uses: 2.8 per 1000 people. The Pine Ridge Reservation has 0.6 officers per 1000 people. By federal government standards, the OST police force should have 113 officers, almost four times as many as it has now.

Pettigrew concluded his testimony by telling the Committee his tribe needs help now. 

“Both Democratic and Republican Administrations have studied the lack of law enforcement in Indian Country to death; instead of another study or another needs assessment report, we need the budget reset that those prior studies have recommended,” Pettigrew testified. “It’s just that simple.”

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Levi Rickert
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Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].