ONEIDA, N. Y. ? How long is the arm of tribal law enforcement?
The reach of tribal police poses one of the most vexing and emotional questions in the complicated law of Indian sovereignty.
Jurisdiction is determined by a patchwork of federal and state law, further complicated by recent U. S. Supreme Court decisions. Public Law 280, the Indian Civil Rights Act, the Major Crimes Act, all impose federal limits on tribal sovereignty that can vary from state to state and tribe to tribe.
Land settlement agreements between tribes and states impose further conditions. Tribal police departments sometimes try to straighten out the kinks by cooperative agreements with state and local police, "cross-deputizing" officers so they can work in each other's jurisdictions.
But, as has happened with the Oneida Indian Nation, local politics sometimes interferes, making the law officers' lives more difficult.
This patchwork has prompted a major initiative from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the world's largest organization of law enforcement executives. At its annual summit on Oct. 28 in Toronto, Ontario, the IACP, representing 17,000 departments, was set to adopt an important report entitled "Improving Safety in Indian Country."
The report was drafted by the association's Tribal Police Section, headed by Ed Reina, chief of the Yavapai-Prescott Tribal Police Department. One of its main concerns is promoting "cross-jurisdictional" cooperation among tribal, federal state and local law enforcement.
An advance draft said the association will reach out to non-Indian agencies to improve relations with tribal police. It specifically calls for collaboration with the National Sheriffs Association and urges the U. S. Department of Justice to host a tribal law enforcement summit focused on increased cooperation.
The police chiefs' summit also recommends further "multi-jurisdictional investigative units" that cut across tribal, state and federal boundaries.
An example of such a unit is at work on a 20-year-old unsolved murder on the Oneida Homeland.
The Oneida Indian Nation tribal police are working closely with the FBI, the
New York State Police and the Oneida County Sheriff's office to reopen a "cold case" involving the rape and murder of a young non-Indian woman.
Although constrained from giving detail about the open investigation, Oneida Nation Police Chief John Folino said, "I can tell you we have cooperated with them on this. The nation police played a big role in reinvigorating (the investigation) because of our involvement in the Task Force. They have acknowledged our work on this and said that they would have had more difficulty without us."
In spite of the professional cooperation, the Oneida Nation police are feeling the effects of local politics on jurisdiction. From 1994 to early 2000, Folino said the force had a cross-deputization agreement with the neighboring Oneida and Madison counties.
"All of our people were deputized as a special deputy with each county," Folino said. "Under this agreement, our people could make arrests, go to court, get warrants and do the basic things that before they were only able to do on Indian land. They were able to do this for non-Indians."
But at the end of March, 2000, the counties canceled the cross-deputization, under pressure from a local anti-Oneida group called Upstate Citizens for Equality. Now when the nation police arrest a non-Indian on tribal land, they have to turn him over to a sheriff's deputy or merely escort him off Oneida property. The county authorities make the decision whether to follow up with prosecution.
"We have fairly good cooperation with the department," Folinosaid . "We have to realize they are sometimes strapped for manpower. They do respond."
But the lack of an agreement is definitely a burden, he said. In the year after its cancellation, he said, the 37 sworn officers of the nation police handled 10,000 calls.
"Many of these were not crucial," Folino said. "A lot of them were service calls." But , he added, "It's about efficiency." With the deputization agreement, he said, "it would be that much more efficient."
"Not that we can't do it. We do do it. But, yes, it's a problem."