Tribes, deputies get to know each other

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RIVERSIDE, Calif. – What is an officer-involved shooting investigation?

Riverside County Sheriff Lt. Lyndon “Ray” Wood addressed the intricate details of such an investigation with tribal members and casino safety employees at a recent three-day citizen’s academy tailored for them.

Wood paused to answer a question motivated by the shootings on the Soboba Indian reservation in 2008. Three Soboba Indians suspected of shooting at deputies were killed by deputies on their reservation.

“The action of that individual deputy has to be justified by that individual deputy. It’s not a free for all,” Wood said of deputy-involved shootings.

For some, their psyches were still dwelling on the seven-month-old incidents at the Soboba Reservation that stirred Southern California Indian country and intensified the debate over a law that mandates non-Native agencies patrol reservations.

The inaugural academy attracted only about eight participants from three reservations or casinos. But Riverside County Sheriff officials hope that number will increase as it schedules ongoing academies that are being promoted as a cultural exchange program where law enforcement and local Indian culture are learned.

It concluded Dec. 20 with gun blasts and commands as Indian participants went through a shoot or no shoot real-life simulator meant to familiarize them with the split-second decisions and use of force situations deputies could be confronted with while patrolling their respective reservations.

“It makes me see what they actually go through,” said Columba Quintero, a tribal administrator and member of the Torres Martinez Band of Cahuilla Indians. “I think what is most important is to see the threats and that they are human,” she said of deputies.

Riverside County is home to 12 reservations that were first established in the 19th century with the descendents of Southern California’s first inhabitants. Some reservations were once remote, known only by enigmatic road signs. But now they abut densely populated areas and attract thousands of non-Natives with Las Vegas-style casinos and resorts.

Tensions heated in the summer between the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians after the shootouts led to a publicized course of developments that notched up the hostility. Soboba Chairman Robert Salgado said he would scrutinize deputies wanting access to the reservation and the county’s sheriff declared the reservation and its casino unsafe.

Plans to reach out to the county’s Indian communities predated the conflict, sheriff officials said.

“I was interested in bettering the agency to be a lot more sensitive. … I was concerned about our officers not being sensitive enough,” said Sheriff Stanley Sniff adding that the Soboba incident made him realize his plan needed “to be much bigger.” Sniff has implemented the academy and created a three-person tribal liaison team.

The academy includes classes on laws that could be applied to reservations such as trespassing but also allowed participants into the world of law enforcement by giving out informationon the investigation and the citizen’s complaint processes.

“For us the biggest thing is that they have a complaint form and it was also good for us to understand their General Orders,” said Cabazon Band of Mission Indians Vice Chairman David Roosevelt.

Roosevelt said his tribe will apply a “top-down” approach to the academies, enrolling a continuous amount of tribal members to future academies to eventually instill the knowledge community-wide. “We will keep sending them over and over.”

The other purpose of the academy is to bring Indian culture and traditions to the deputies to develop standard training guidelines to be disseminated department-wide. Death rituals such as “saging” and spiritual leaders could be misread during death investigations for example, sheriff officials said.

“If you have a new deputy he or she is not going to know about these things,” Wood said.

To accomplish this, the tribal liaison unit provides an open forum type of setting to generate maximum feedback from Indians. And they have visited numerous reservations, casinos and pow wows.

The department appears to be serious about the program, assigning Wood, a veteran lieutenant that is well regarded by the rank and file deputies to ensure that its future training guidelines carry weight among them. The team includes a community police expert and a Native police officer pulled out of retirement. A fourth member is expected to be assigned this month.

Deputies said the program is already making a difference, “(Deputies) are getting calls from reservations they never received calls on before,” said tribal liaison Alex Tortes.

Despite Salgado’s rhetoric of scrutinizing law enforcement units wanting access to the reservation, deputies have entered unencumbered and have cooperated completely with the tribe, Sniff said.

However, until the tribe withdraws that earlier rhetoric they won’t be invited to the academy, Sniff said. “They need to lift that posture that they put out in July.”

Soboba Tribal Council Secretary Rose Salgado said the tribe will be there.

“The tribe is currently working on an agreement with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. Soboba was the first to respond to the academy, and looks forward to attending in the spring,” she said in an e-mail.