Bruning doubtful of racial bias in area legal system

Published Wednesday July 23, 2008

Charges leveled by American Indian activist Russell Means of racial bias in the legal system in northwest Nebraska are without merit, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning said last week.

In a July 15 interview at The Chadron Record office, Bruning said he doesn’t think local police, sheriff’s staff or prosecutors treat Native Americans differently than others, as Means has charged.

Asked about statistics that indicate proportionately more law enforcement stops of Native Americans than their make up in the area population, Bruning said the numbers are not necessarily related to racism. “It’s always difficult to get a handle on whether a particular racial group is stopped more because of racism, or whether they are stopped more because they are disproportionately committing crimes,” he said. “Is it the police who are stopping more Native Americans, or is it the Native Americans who are giving the police more reasons to stop them? I don’t know the answer to that.”

Bruning added that he believes the Nebraska State Patrol is mostly free of racial bias. “I don’t believe there is racism in the State Patrol, with the exception of one officer who I’m trying to run out on a rail,” he said, referring to an ongoing effort to terminate a State Patrol officer who joined an organization with ties to the Klu Klux Klan. “I have great faith in our State Patrol…I don’t think there is racism going on in Nebraska law enforcement.”

Even in the case of the trooper who joined a racist group “we don’t have any proof that he did (racial profiling in arrests),” said Bruning.

An effort to improve law enforcement in White Clay in response to protests against the sale of beer to people from the adjacent Pine Ridge Indian Reservation,where alcohol is banned, hasn’t yielded much improvement, according to Bruning. “It has been frustrating. At one point we had a significant amount of money appropriated but the tribe didn’t want to cross deputize (their law enforcement officers),” he said. “I think part of it depends on stable leadership in the tribe.”

But he vowed to continue the effort. “The cross deputization is still possible. It takes will on the part of the tribe,” he said. “I’ll never give up.”

And Nebraska has stepped up law enforcement in White Clay, according to Bruning. “The state of Nebraska is not ignoring the problem,” he said. “I would say that the state of Nebraska spends a disproportionate amount on policing White Clay compared to the population.”

Asked about the recent release of statistics showing a decrease in crime in Nebraska, Bruning gave credit to good law enforcement, and increased emphasis on community corrections. He also touted a program in use in South Dakota which requires individuals who have more than one drunk driving conviction to check in twice a day for an alcohol test as a condition of probation.

The program utilizes an inexpensive breath test, and doesn’t require law enforcement personnel to staff the centers where the tests are taken, according to Bruning. Participants pay a dollar for the test, which costs the state only a few cents per test, plus staff costs, he said, and the results are highly successful. “It seems to be working really well. It is not only keeping them (participants) out of jail. it’s keeping them off the roads,” Bruning said.

Bruning said he is considering setting up a pilot program in Dawes County to test the idea in Nebraska, and has discussed the idea with Sheriff Karl Dailey and County Attorney Vance Haug. “We’ll have to come up with seed money, and get the judge interested in adding (the program) to the term of probation,”he said.

“I like it because it keeps people out of jail,” said Bruning. “The offenders like it because it gives structure to their lives.”

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