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Fatal flaws in Public Law 280

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A May 12 gunfight that left two Native people dead in southern California is the most recent of six shootings involving local police and members of the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians. Just days before, the son of a former tribal official was killed after firing at sheriff's deputies with an assault rifle. Another son was killed in 2002 in a similar incident involving a shootout with local deputies. Understandably, the air at Soboba is thick with sorrow, confusion and, perhaps most critical, anger.

The rash of violence on the small reservation has tribal chairman Robert ''Bobby'' Salgado incensed and frustrated, evidenced by his many candid comments to media. In the hours following the shootings, Salgado traded barbs with local law officials, calling the situation a war with the 7th Cavalry and warning residents, ''They shoot first and ask questions later.'' Restraint will serve the suffering community well in the short term as police will be on high alert for retaliation and tribal members sort through details both tragic and infuriating.

Hostility between residents of the reservation and local communities has been growing since a Soboba tribal member was killed by a deputy at a traffic checkpoint in December. Outsiders blame the increasing violence on "lawlessness" they say is fueled by casino wealth and the inability of tribal leaders to ''control'' community factions they describe as criminal. Salgado points to a lack of respect for tribal sovereignty by local law enforcement agencies. Both sides agree their communities are plagued by gang violence and drug-related crime; between the two latest shootings, southern California tribal leaders had actually gathered at San Manuel to begin discussing ways to identify and combat social problems as a group.

Acknowledgment and unity are powerful tools for rebuilding relations within and around the small reservation communities, but officials must also address a much deeper element of this turmoil - the jurisdiction of state and local law enforcement over reservation crimes.

Public Law 280 creates a controversial tangle of federal, state and tribal jurisdiction that complicates authority of law enforcement agencies over a crime committed on Indian lands. The termination-era law poses a number of persistent problems limiting tribes' abilities in P.L. 280 states to respond to crimes occurring on their reservations. It transferred policing responsibilities on reservations from the federal government to state agencies but did not provide financial funding to support state jurisdiction. Matters become intensely worse when already strained relations escalate after a crime occurs on Indian land.

At Soboba, the entire reservation was locked down by local authorities for an extended period of time after the latest shooting, even though the incident occurred closer to the boundaries of the reservation. The approach was excessive, Salgado charged. He was outraged when police ordered people out of the school gymnasium single file, then - at gunpoint - checked each for weapons. Every time police come to the reservation, he said, ''They think they have control over the whole rez.''

Carole Goldberg, an expert on criminal justice in Indian country, advised the tribe in the aftermath. ''One question should be, 'What is the appropriate police response when a situation does not, obviously, implicate the members of the tribe?''' she said. ''To what extent should the reservation as a whole be treated as a crime scene or danger zone?''

We ask: Should tribes add to their community policing efforts access to experts in crisis communication and federal Indian law to compensate for the failure of P.L. 280? Should they have to?

These questions need answers, and quickly. All eyes will be on Soboba and its potentially volatile atmosphere of anger and mourning, but also because the elements of the situation are not at all unique to southern California. All of Indian country has a stake in this outcome.