Pine Ridge, Pennington County eye working together on law enforcement

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PINE RIDGE, S.D. (KOTA TV) Tribal authorities and outside law enforcement have not always worked closely together.

Oglala Sioux Tribe's Vice President Darla Black.

But Pennington County and the Oglala Sioux Tribe on Wednesday moved closer to an historic agreement that is being called "an important step to putting public safety first,” above politics.

“We really are a single community that happens to live about a hundred miles apart,” said Pennington County States Attorney Mark Vargo after he addressed the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Law and Order Committee.

Vargo presented two draft documents that would create a mutual aid agreement between Pennington County and the sovereign Oglala Nation. In addition, the agreements would create a framework to corral certain violent offenders who today escape justice by crossing the tribe's borders.

“What happens is that an offender who flees Pennington County to the reservation, tribal police have essentially no jurisdiction over him because the offense was not committed” on the reservation, said Vargo.

“Pennington County has no jurisdiction to come get him. What this (agreement) would do would allow the tribe to return those people to Pennington County to face charges.”

Vargo pointed to a pressing need to close this loophole: “Some of the most serious crimes that have occurred recently on the reservation have been (perpetrated by) people who were fleeing state warrants,” he said.

The agreements are far from being finalized and skepticism among tribal members has deep historic roots.

“I stand with our people when it comes to protecting our sovereignty,” said Oglala Sioux Tribal Vice President Darla Black. “We have concerns about allowing other jurisdictions to come in here.”

But after months of work by Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom, Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris and Tribal officials including Tribal Council Law and Order Committee Chairman Stanley Little Whiteman, momentum appears to be gathering for the leaders to come together to help stem the rash of drug-fueled violence that clouds life in Western South Dakota.

“I think, historically, jurisdictional complications and jurisdictional politics have gotten in the way of public safety,” said Jegeris. “So I think today was a very important step to putting public safety first.”

Oglala Sioux Interim Police Chief Mark Mesteth agreed, with a message for violent offenders.

“Tell those people, ‘No more. There's no more hiding. There's no more safe haven,' ” he said. “So they're going to have to be thinking about that the next time” they consider committing a violent crime.

On Thursday, July 20, the tribe's Law and Order Committee will host a forum at Oglala Lakota College in Kyle on the proposed agreements.

Public input is invited.