Federal officials have launched a new program that will allow tribes access to national criminal databases, to help fix a system that has frequent breakdowns in information sharing between tribes and outside law enforcement authorities. The Tribal Access Program for National Crime Information, or TAP, will allow federally recognized tribes to enter criminal records into and pull information out of national databases overseen by the Criminal Justice Information Services Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In addition to letting tribes submit data, it will also allow them to conduct background checks when a tribe needs to place a child with a foster parent in an emergency situation — another area tribes have long sought to have fixed.

“Empowering tribal law enforcement with information strengthens public safety and is a key element in our ongoing strategy to build safe and healthy communities in Indian country,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates said. “The Tribal Access Program is a step forward to providing tribes the access they need to protect their communities, keep guns from falling into the wrong hands, assist victims, and prevent domestic and sexual violence.”

Michelle Demmert, a Tulalip Tribes attorney, said they’ve spent years working with federal officials to identify gaps in the criminal database system and this announcement seems to say “the Department of Justice and the Office of Tribal Justice has heard the tribe’s voice - the TAP program will reinforce the Tulalip Tribes’ commitment to using available tools to protect its community.”

Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby, President of the National Conference of American Indians, said the plan “responds to a long-standing public safety concern in Indian Country. Today’s announcement is an encouraging step, and we hope that the new DOJ Tribal Access Program will lead to real change and meaningful solutions - The safety of our communities depends on it.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs also announced that it and the Office of Justice Services have created another new program that will give tribal social service agencies 24-hour access to criminal history records to ensure the safe placement of children in foster care. Demmert praised that move, saying the Tulalip Tribes “is encouraged that our ability to protect our most vulnerable population — children — in times of crisis will be assisted with this work around issue to access name-based criminal history records when children need to be placed out of the home.” Francesca Hillary, spokeswoman for the Tulalip Tribes, has said tribes have been asking for a system to access the national databases for years. Justice officials said they’ve been working with tribes to resolve the roadblocks that kept a system from working effectively.

The FBI oversees a justice information services system in all 50 states. The system includes the National Crime Information Center, used by law enforcement to get data on stolen property, wanted people and sex offenders, and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, used by Federal Firearms Licensees during gun purchases. To date, the systems have been available to federal, state and local law enforcement but not to all tribes. The TAP program will support and train tribes as they connect with the system. Once established, they’ll be able to use the databases in the same way as outside law enforcement.