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NC Cherokee among tribes granted access to federal crime database

Background checks and criminal filings just got more accessible for 10 American Indian tribes, as the Department of Justice granted them access to national crime databases for civil and criminal purposes.

Access to criminal records has technically been permitted since 2010, but many state and land-related restrictions have prevented tribes from utilizing them.

According to the Department of Justice, the Tribal Access Program for National Crime Information will allow participating tribes to submit criminal records as well as access the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Service.

“This innovative program will allow an unprecedented sharing of critical information between tribal, state and federal governments, information that could help solve a crime or even save someone’s life,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates in a press release from the Department of Justice.

But the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina — one of the 10 chosen for TAP — have had an easier time accessing records than most because of a favorable relationship with the state government, said Justin Eason, assistant tribal prosecutor for the Cherokee. 

“Prior to (TAP), tribal prosecution had been working with the state government to allow the tribe access to NCIC," he said. "For the Eastern Band this streamlines the ability to bring us into compliance with the Department of Justice and TAP.”

Eason said the Eastern Band of Cherokee was chosen to help pilot this program because of its history of compliance with the State Bureau of Investigation.

“That’s a testament to the advanced nature of the tribal justice system,” he said. “We have a very advanced one compared to other tribes in the country.”

Before this program, he said it was difficult — if not entirely impossible — for most tribes to access any sort of criminal record or perform background checks before hiring individuals for “sensitive jobs.”

“Through (the NCIC), normally state and local officials have access to criminal records,” Eason said. “Prior to this program being enacted, tribes were left out of this because NCIC access is governed by state laws that don’t always cover tribal groups.”

Background checks, specifically for weapons, have been a recent focus — given a line of school and public shootings. A member of the Tulalip tribe in Washington State was able to purchase a gun, despite a 2001 domestic violence restraining order issued by tribal court. The same gun was later used by his son during a mass shooting at Pilchuck High School in October 2014.

Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, said expanding the information accessible to tribes can greatly enhance tribal safety.

“Especially in Native American tribes, we see high suicide rates, so by getting more data into the system we save lives,” Horwitz said. “Criminal background checks for the purpose of purchasing firearms are only as good as the information that goes into them, so the more information that can be accessed, the better.”

Yates said the program will help expand government and tribal cooperation.

“The TAP program is a reflection of the Justice Department’s commitment to the government-to-government relationship, to overcoming barriers and building strong partnerships with American Indian and Alaska Native people,” she said.

But ultimately, Carol Runyan, professor at the University of Colorado's School of Public Health, said the best way to reduce mass school shootings is to remove guns completely from campuses.

“The best way to avoid gun violence is to reduce the numbers of guns in circulation and to make sure the ones in circulation are sold legally and locked properly,” she said.

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