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California tribal law enforcement studied

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RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. - A three-day conference of California law enforcement officials and a coalition of California Indian tribes opened a chapter in what promises to be an ongoing dialogue regarding better law enforcement on American Indian tribal lands in the Golden State.

At issue was a historic proposal to allow cross-deputization of tribal police as full California peace officers.

Two issues have been major stumbling blocks toward the main objectives sought by the tribal coalition.

The first, and most likely to be overcome, is Police Officer Standards Training (POST) certification. The California Sheriffs Association has expressed concern that tribal police departments are lacking in the quality and standards other public law enforcement agencies must maintain.

"It isn't just training that's the problem for tribal police officers, it's maintaining standards for the tribal police that concern us. I mean, theoretically tribal police can hire people like those cops that beat Rodney King," says Lt. Louis Fetherholf, legislative liaison for the Riverside County Sheriff's department.

Fetherholf cites an example of a tribal police department - he doesn't say which one - which hired POST-certified officers who were dismissed from previous positions for corruption. He says that it does no benefit to tribal members to have their law enforced by "morally bankrupt" police officers.

At the other end of the state and spectrum, Humboldt County Sheriff Dennis Lewis already has cross-deputized tribal police officers and sees it as a "necessary measure" in his largely rural and remote county. He insists the tribal police officers in Humboldt are up to the standards of members he would hire for his own department.

The potentially more serious stumbling block is the issue of liability. Law enforcement agencies across California must buy private insurance against potential mistakes by individual officers. To be cross-deputized, the state is seeking to have tribes waive their sovereign immunity on this point to allow their law enforcement agencies to participate in the general liability insurance.

When this issue was brought before the conference, tempers started to flare. Many tribal members who have only recently seen their sovereignty enforced were particularly concerned about giving any ground on the issue of sovereign immunity. Several concerned tribal members grilled panelists discussing this matter.

There was some call for abolition of Public Law 83-280, a federal statute that largely removes federal responsibility for tribal law enforcement and gives it to the states. Six states, including California are subject to this law.

Those disgruntled with "PL-280" see its abolition as the only way to gain tribal control and circumvent the liability question. The participating 67 California Indian tribes united under the banner called Coalition for Enhanced Tribal Law Enforcement which has a steering committee drawn from seven tribes.

The Barona and Cabazon tribes have largely spearheaded the development of this somewhat remarkable coalition, considering there are so many tribal governments participating. Since tribes represented are as diverse as California itself, many of the solutions suggested may not be applicable to all.

There seem to be some disparities between the wealthier Southern California tribes and their poorer northern cousins whose members openly grumbled that solutions that were best for the southern tribes would not work as well for them.

Elizabeth "Mona" DeRouen, vice chairwoman for the Northern California-based Dry Creek Rancheria, says in her region many of the tribes are small, scattered and remote. She points out that many living on the tiny reservations would be forced to police their own relatives, a less than ideal situation.

DeRouen also says many smaller tribes do not have effective criminal and civil codes needed to establish tribal courts and other governing agencies separate from tribal councils. "Many of our tribes in our area don't have these codes. Until we do, we can't have a comprehensive base in which to enforce the law."

Despite these concerns, DeRouen says she is truly impressed with the conference, calling it "historic." She feels this is a dialogue that should have been addressed "years ago."

A tribal member from DeRouen's area, Sonoma County Sheriff's deputy Nelson Pinola said he sympathizes with her concerns and knows firsthand what it is like to arrest family members. He feels his presence in the sheriff's department has helped bridge understanding of tribal needs.

"I think there are many potential solutions to the problem of law enforcement for the (smaller and poorer) tribes. I think, however, it's most important that we get some consensus and that seems to be the goal of this conference," Pinola says.

It was not just California's tribes and government which took an interest in the conference. Attorney General Janet Reno addressed the conference via videotape and reiterated the conference goal of better law enforcement for tribal people.

Perhaps the star speaker of the conference was Assistant Secretary of the Interior Kevin Gover who began his speech with a history of tribal law enforcement dating back to the 19th century.

Indirectly addressing the liability-sovereign immunity question, the central theme of Gover's speech was power versus responsibility. He seemed to warn tribes that being unyielding on this issue would only be to their detriment.

"If it becomes a contest for power, everyone loses. Our concern should be responsibility to our citizens' safety and well being," Gover says

Round Valley Chairman Mike Pina says his tribe is taking a step toward increased safety for its citizens with a Community Oriented Policing (COPS) grant. It is an attempt to supplement the small sheriff's substation in nearby Covelo that may have as few as one officer on duty at any given time.

"Mendocino County Sheriff Tony Craver has been wonderful in working with the tribe. We are hoping to be able to help him out," Pina says.

Co-directors of the Native American Affairs Department of the California Attorney General, Olin Jones and Marcia Hoaglen, said they were delighted to hear so many issues being put forth. The conference was their brainchild and the result of a nine-month effort to help mediate an agreement on law enforcement.

Jones and Hoaglen said the conference was a big, first step toward better tribal law enforcement though much work needs to be done. In addition to the POST certification and liability issues, they feel the next step is to discuss the issues of "rights of non-tribal members in the law enforcement process and to establish clear jurisdictional boundaries and scope of tribal peace officer authority."

Washoe Tribal Police Chief Rick Norris says he knows too well the problems of jurisdictional authorities. The Washoe reservation sits astride the California-Nevada border and depending on who is arrested and where the arrests are made determines the actions Norris is allowed to take.

For example, if Norris arrests a non-tribal member in Nevada, a non-PL-280 state, he must turn them over to the authorities in Carson City and is allowed only to make his case to the prosecution. If the non-tribal member is apprehended in California, Norris has the right to detain them for the California Highway Patrol. If a tribal member is arrested on either side of the border, he has the right to hold them in the Washoe facilities.

"Man, it can get really bizarre. It would be great to have these jurisdictional issues made more clear," Norris says.

To make all the issues more clear, the tribal coalition has begun to draft a California State Assembly bill, "Tribal-State Law Enforcement Cooperation Act of 2001." It is in the draft stage and does not yet contain language to address all areas of concern. However, it has a sponsor in Sen. Richard Alarcon, D-San Fernando Valley. Coalition sources say they hope to have the bill completed and on the Assembly floor by next summer.