DOJ Targets Opioid Crisis, Human Trafficking Within Native Tribes

By Paul Gaita 08/24/17

The Justice Department wants to crack down on opioid addiction, human trafficking, and violent crime in Native American tribal communities.

An indigenous community member leading a march during a solidarity rally
An indigenous community member leading a march during a solidarity rally with the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters on November 5, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it will increase assistance to Native American tribes across the country in an attempt to help stem the tide of opioid dependency in that demographic, among other legal and public safety issues.

A series of listening sessions with tribal law enforcement in May and June helped the DOJ to formulate its strategies, which will include two Opioid Awareness Outreach meetings in Alaska and northern California in August.

The DOJ is also planning to expand access to criminal information databases and provide services to American Indian and Alaska Native victims of sex trafficking in urban areas as part of this greater assistance initiative.

The first Opioid Awareness Outreach meeting took place in Anchorage, Alaska on August 16, with a second slated for August 29 in Sacramento, California. The events are sponsored by a host of federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and U.S. Attorneys in those respective states.

The DEA will offer a presentation on the signs of opioid abuse with a specific focus on heroin and fentanyl awareness, while the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services (OJS) will provide strategies on deploying the anti-overdose drug Narcan in Indian country.

"The developments announced by Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions are vitally important in aiding tribal governments in dealing with and seeking solutions to serious drug, sex trafficking and crimes against children issues afflicting their communities," said acting Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Interior for Indian Affairs, Michael S. Black.

"I urge tribal leads and their police departments to take advantage of upcoming opportunities to provide their input on and learn more about ways of addressing these critical areas of public safety in Indian country," said Black.

Other elements in the DOJ's plan include expansion of the Tribal Access Program (TAP), which gives federally recognized tribes access to national crime information databases in an attempt to resolve public safety issues in their communities. The expansion is set for Fiscal Year 2018.

Additionally, the DOJ's Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center will increase its presence in Native American and Alaska Native territories; the center assists tribal governments in public information-sharing and jurisdictional coordination between tribal police and local law enforcement. The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) will also develop programs in partnership with native groups in Seattle, Washington; Chicago, Illinois; and Albuquerque, New Mexico, and human trafficking task forces to assist victims of sex trafficking with services designed to help them recover from their ordeals.

While opioid dependency is a significant problem among all races, Native American and Alaska Native communities have suffered a significantly high number of opioid-related deaths.

Statistics from 2014 found that 8.4 out of every 100,000 individuals in those demographics died from opioid-related overdoses; rates among Caucasians were 7.9, while African-Americans and Latinos were 3.3 and 2.2, respectively. Heroin also claimed four out of every 100,000 Native Americans in 2014.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.