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California drops bill to expand powers of tribal police


SACRAMENTO, Calif. ? Tribal police officers will have to wait longer for full state recognition as peace officers, following the expiration last week of a California state Senate bill..

The time limit on Senate Bill 911 expired because of failure to come to a consensus on the issue of unlimited liability, officials of the California Justice Department told Indian Country Today. The California state Sheriff's Association sought the provision.

A coalition of 70 California tribes opposed unlimited liability because it would have required a waiver of sovereign immunity, something the tribes said was unacceptable. The tribes made a counter proposal of a $5 million cap on tribal police officer liability.

"The California state Sheriff's Association did not want this bill to happen. This is something that would have come at absolutely no cost to the state of California," Cabazon tribal spokesman Greg Cervantes said.

Negotiations on the bill have been ongoing for the previous two years and have largely been mediated by the Office of Native American Affairs in the California Department of Justice.

Olin Jones, the co-director of the Office of Native American Affairs says that he is not worried about the demise of SB 911 and pledges to continue the negotiation process.

Jones reports that SB 911 author Richard Alarcon, D-Sylmar, has already introduced a replacement "spot bill." A spot bill is legislative jargon for a placeholder bill, which is how SB 911 originally began. The spot bill, known as Senate Bill 1252, contains a skeletal frame of generic language, designed to be amended as negotiations continue.

SB 911 was a pet project of the Office of Native American Affairs. Jones says it was mainly his office's responsibility to keep the two sides talking. In this regard Jones and co-director Marcia Hoaglen arranged a statewide series of meetings and conferences designed to keep the tribes and the state Sheriff's Association speaking to each other.

The tribal coalition and the Sheriff's Association have made some progress, finding consensus on other potential roadblocks such as California Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) certification, to which all sides eventually agreed. In fact, liability has become the sole outstanding issue.

The tribal coalition feels that the $5 million liability cap is more than adequate and points to such high profile cases as Rodney King, which was settled for $3.8 million.

Meanwhile, the California state Sheriff's Association says that it cannot be known whether or not potential damages in a lawsuit might exceed this figure and have said in published reports that they feel having a cap would be unfair to other California police entities.

Though he did not return repeated calls, Nick Warner a spokesman for the California Sheriff's Association had this to say about the failure of SB 911 in a published report in the Inland Southern California Press Enterprise: "The public ought to be breathing a collective sigh of relief here because of the intransigence on issues like accountability, liability and training."

The effort to expand tribal peace officer powers has largely been spearheaded by the Cabazon Tribe. It counters that the issues of liability and training were addressed in SB 911.

Cervantes and Sally Palmer, who has represented Cabazon during the negotiations, are not as optimistic as Olin Jones about the prospects of the spot bill. They said they are weighing several other options.

One of these options would be to file a lawsuit under the auspices of Public Law 280 ? the law that remands tribal police jurisdiction to the states, claiming that the state is not providing adequate police protection.

Another option would be to encourage other tribes to follow Cabazon's lead and have their tribal police officers become federal peace officers. The Cabazon move in April of last year effectively circumvented PL 280.

The third option would be to form a consultation group that would assist tribes in following Cabazon's lead of elevating their officers to the federal level.

Furthermore, Palmer and Cervantes say that the spot bill does little more than provide for the permanent creation of the Office of Native American Affairs, which only exists on a temporary basis. It was set up by current California state Attorney General Bill Lockyear. The bill also provides language for cultural training during the POST certification that Cervantes and Palmer stop just short of calling sensitivity training.

"The spot bill won't have any real meat in it until 2003, after Alarcon is re-elected," says Palmer.

Meanwhile, Jones reiterates that the spot bill is only to be used as a building framework and feels that it can be fleshed out as talks progress. He says his office does not want to lose the momentum that has developed up until this point.

"Even though the bill has gone away, the initial reason for this bill, to create greater law enforcement for Indian people, is still there, and until that is taken care of we're going to keep at it."