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DOJ expands access to federal crime databases for Wash. state tribes

The Tribal Access Program allows tribes to see and enter information into multiple federal databases

By Heidi Groover
The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — Five Native-American tribes in Washington state will get new access to federal criminal databases, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington announced Monday.

The Tribal Access Program allows tribes to see and enter information into multiple federal databases, including the system meant to stop people barred from owning guns from buying them.

The federal government first chose 10 tribes for the program in 2015, including Washington’s Tulalip Tribes, whose lack of access to federal databases may have been a factor in the 2014 shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Jaylen Fryberg, a 15-year-old student, killed four classmates and wounded a fifth at a cafeteria table before shooting himself. Fryberg used a gun purchased by his father, Raymond Fryberg, despite the fact that his father had been the subject of a domestic-violence restraining order in Tulalip Tribal Court that should have barred him from buying the gun. The restraining order had apparently never been entered into a federal database.

The senior Fryberg was convicted of illegally owning that firearm and sentenced to two years in prison.

Among the databases the Tribal Access Program provides for tribal use is the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, which some gun dealers use to determine whether customers are allowed to buy firearms.

Allowing tribes to access federal databases would “improve the reliability of background-check information to keep those who do not have a right to possess firearms from obtaining them,” U.S. Attorney Annette Hayes said in a 2015 statement.

The Department of Justice will now add five more tribes in Washington to the program: the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Quinault Indian Nation, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.

Lou D’Amelio, chief of police for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, said his department has until now relied on nearby sheriff’s offices or police departments to file court orders into federal databases or run fingerprint checks on new hires.

Being able to access the databases will be “much more direct and effective,” D’Amelio said. Tribal housing and child-protection agencies will be able to use the systems to run background checks, he said.

For Suquamish Tribal Police, another department chosen in 2015, access to the databases has helped them solve crimes and share information.

Suquamish Tribal Police Detective Mark Williams said his department used the databases to help locate a missing 90-year-old tribal member. The elderly man had been “essentially kidnapped” by a woman, and officers only knew the woman’s nickname and phone number, Williams said.

Using the databases, they found her full name, date of birth and address, and found the man at her house. The program has also allowed Suquamish Tribal Police to enter information, like reports of stolen guns, into the federal databases.

“Some tribes here in Washington and in more rural parts of the country have never had access to this kind of information and they operate in a bubble,” Williams said. “They have no idea who they’re dealing with, no ability to share information with other tribes and the federal government about what’s going on.”

In total, 47 tribes are now part of the Tribal Access Program. The expansion will bring the total number of tribes in the program to 72, nine of them in Washington.