SACRAMENTO, Calif. ? Talks to cross-deputize American Indian police officers in California are stymied over the issue of liability.
After numerous meetings over nearly two years, a wide gap remains between the tribes and the California Sheriff's Department over the liability exposure of tribes in malpractice cases.
The tribes reportedly want to cap the limit for liability at $5 million. They argue this figure
would adequately cover any legal cases involving tribal police officers. They point out that even high profile cases such as Rodney King were ultimately settled for far less than $5 million.
California's law enforcement communities, represented by the California State Sheriff's Association, wants unlimited liability to bring tribes in
line with neighboring law enforcement agencies.
Calls to attorneys representing the California State Sheriff's
Association were not returned by press time.
It is not as though the tribes do not have supporters in high places. California State Sen. Richard Alarcon, D-Sylmar, has authored Senate Bill 911 which seeks to give tribal police officers similar status to other
police entities. It is the draft version of this bill that is making its
way through various committee meetings around the state.
California is a Public Law 280 state, referring to the federal
statute that placed the stewardship for American Indian law enforcement into the state and not the federal government's hands.
The entire process has been a "labor of love" for Olin Jones, who is co-director of the California Department of Justice's Office of Native American Affairs. To Jones this issue is of tantamount importance to California's Indian tribes and he knows that the wheels of justice often turn slowly, particularly when trying to reach a consensus between dozens of American Indian tribes and as many local law enforcement entities.
Though Jones, who is Creek and fellow co-director Marcia Hoaglen, who is Pomo, are both Indian, they often have had to put their emotional ties aside to avoid advocating for one side or another. For them it is the very businesslike matter of mediation and in some cases, just setting up the general circumstances for mediation.
Jones and Hoaglen have plodded through this task one slow step at a time. For them it is a
matter of keeping the sides talking and making sure these talks do not break down. This is no small task when faced with the pet issues of a couple dozen tribal governments and the myriad of local Sheriff's departments from each of California's 54 counties.
There has been some progress. Jones and Hoaglen organized a large summit, held last December in Palm Springs that featured leaders of most of California's tribes. They have made significant headway on a number of former roadblock issues.
The California Peace Officer
Standards and Training (POST) certification for tribal police officers is one example. Though some tribes initially objected because such training would involve the removal of tribal police officers for significant periods of time, it was generally decided that POST certification was necessary.
The issue of liability is much trickier since it potentially involves a waiver of sovereign immunity. In other states, including Oklahoma, the county assumes the liability for officers' cross-deputized on Indian land. Humboldt County, in far northern California also does this and is the only county in the Golden State that has allowed for cross-deputization. However, this requires tribes to waive a certain amount of limited sovereign immunity.
This is a particularly sensitive issue for California tribes who, after being systematically de-recognized in the 1950s and 1960s, are wary of anything that would infringe even minutely on their hard-won sovereign powers.
Jones, however, says, despite the emotionally charged issues and all that it brings up with sovereignty, he is hopeful that some consensus can be reached
on the matter.
SB 911 to Jones is now what is known as a two-year bill. What this means to the layman is that the bill is not expected to reach the legislative floor until this summer. If passed there and signed by the governor, it probably would not go into effect until January 2003. However, Jones knows the political realities involved.
"There absolutely must be consensus on the liability issue before anything else can happen," he says.
"We're still trying and working very hard at it," says Hoaglen.
There are still questions of implementation. In Oklahoma, for instance, critics charged just last week that the process of deputizing tribal police officers is too slow and mired in too much bureaucratic red tape with the state. In 10 years since their law took effect only 24 of 68 Oklahoma counties have entered into cross-deputization agreements with the tribes.
California, says Jones, is an entirely different ball of wax in that, unlike Oklahoma, no state agency would be needed to sign off on the cross-deputization agreements. In Oklahoma, a state-tribal relations board that only meets once a year has to approve all cross-deputization agreements.
In California, as is already the case in Humboldt County, only the county board of supervisors, the local Sheriff's office and the tribe have to agree.