Tribally operated law enforcement agencies provide a broad range of public safety services. They respond to calls for service, investigate crimes, enforce traffic laws, execute arrest warrants, serve process, provide court security, and conduct search and rescue operations.
Tribal law enforcement comprises 258 agencies that have at least one full-time sworn officer with arrest authority or authority to issue citations in Indian country, consisting of:
- 234 tribally operated law enforcement agencies
- 23 police agencies operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and
- the Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) program, which provides services to Alaska Native villages that are under the jurisdiction of the Alaska State Police, the entity that administers the VPSO.
The Census of Tribal Law Enforcement Agencies (CTLEA) helps fulfill BJS’s legislative mandate under the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 (TLOA; P.L. 111-211, 124 Stat. 2258 § 251(b)) to establish and implement a tribal crime data collection system. The CTLEA collects information from tribal law enforcement agencies, VPSOs in Alaska, and law enforcement agencies operated by the BIA. The survey is designed to capture unique attributes of tribal criminal justice agencies, including information on staffing and recruitment, budgets and sources of funding, equipment, services and support provided, and interactions with federal, state, regional, and local agencies.
Tribes have inherent authority to exercise criminal jurisdiction over tribal members and to arrest and detain non-Indians for delivery to state or federal authorities for prosecution. These tribal police powers are generally limited to the reservation. Tribal police are often critical to resolving criminal cases referred to state and federal agencies because they usually discover the crime, interview witnesses, and understand the circumstances involved.
Commonly, tribal police department funding, administration, and employees are based on the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, (Public Law 93-638 or P.L. 638). This law allows tribes to assume responsibility for many programs previously administered by the federal government, including law enforcement. P.L. 638 agencies operate with tribal employees under contract and with financial assistance from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
Some tribally operated agencies have a self-governance compact with the BIA. This arrangement provides block grant payments, allowing for more tribal control than the line-item funding of P.L. 638 contracts. Full tribal control over law enforcement services exists where such services are entirely funded by the tribal government.
Terms & Definitions
Criminal jurisdiction in tribal areas
Jurisdiction over offenses in Indian country may lie with federal, state, or tribal agencies, depending on the particular offense, offender, victim, and offense location. For more information on tribal jurisdiction, see State Prosecutors' Offices with Jurisdiction in Indian Country, 2007, Tribal Law Enforcement, 2008, Census of Tribal Justice Agencies in Indian Country, 2002, and the Jails in Indian Country series.