Benewah sheriff calls rights group’s letter ‘stupid’
BOISE - A Kootenai County human rights group sent an open letter to the Idaho Legislature on Thursday saying criminals are going free in Benewah County because the sheriff there refuses to sign a cooperative agreement with the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Police.
Benewah County Sheriff Bob Kirts vigorously disputes the letter, calling the assertions “ill-informed” and from “whiners.”
Coeur d’Alene Tribe spokesman Marc Stewart, however, said the information in the letter to lawmakers is similar to what tribal police officers tell him is happening. “It causes them many sleepless nights, because they worry that someday somebody they let go is going to injure or kill somebody,” he said.
The problem: Without a cross-deputization agreement, tribal police officers can’t arrest non-tribal members, even if they catch them in the act of committing a crime. Instead, they must call on a county deputy or state trooper to make the arrest. Roughly 10,000 people live on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, but only 1,400 are tribal members. In the Kootenai County portion of the reservation, a cross-deputization agreement is in place; there was a longstanding one in Benewah County until Kirts revoked it in 2007.
Christie Wood, a Coeur d’Alene Police sergeant and first vice president of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, wrote in the open letter, “The failure of Sheriff Kirts to work with the tribal police has left citizens in bedlam. Perpetrators have been set free that have committed serious criminal offenses against citizens living in Benewah County. The Tribal Police have documented cases of domestic violence, driving under the influence incidents, criminal assaults, and other criminal offenses that have occurred with no arrests or prosecution.”
Kirts said, “My only comment is she’s ill-informed or she’s just plain lying or stupid.” He added, “I’m not really concerned about it — I represent the people of Benewah County, this is what they want so that’s what we’re going to do.”
Wood is also the Coeur d’Alene Police Department’s spokesman, a former Coeur d’Alene school trustee and current chairwoman of the North Idaho College board of trustees.
Kirts, who’s been Benewah sheriff for five years, is a former state trooper and also served as Benewah sheriff from 1980 to 1988, at which time the county had a cross-deputization agreement with the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Police.
“That was canceled because they started to violate people’s rights by citing non-tribal members into tribal courts and that type of thing,” Kirts said. “It’s a law thing, it’s not human relations. I don’t know what the hell Christie’s talking about.”
Wood’s letter backs legislation that the Coeur d’Alene Tribe is proposing — which hasn’t yet been introduced — to address situations where a local sheriff refuses to cooperate with local tribal police.
As currently drafted, the bill would give tribes a six-month window to give a county notice that they want to enter into a cooperative law enforcement agreement. If an agreement isn’t reached within six months, tribal police could begin enforcing state law against non-tribal members on the reservation, as long as they’re certified by Idaho’s state police academy, the tribe carries insurance, and the tribe waives sovereign immunity to lawsuits over officer wrongdoing.
“The idea was if we can’t work out an agreement with Benewah County, perhaps the best solution is to change the law in order to give citizens a recourse if a sheriff just won’t agree to cooperate,” Stewart, the tribe’s spokesman, said.
Helo Hancock, legislative director for the tribe, said the bill was drafted with elements drawn from several other states’ laws, including Washington’s and Arizona’s, along with input from Idaho sheriffs. Non-tribal members would be subject only to state law and state courts, not tribal courts, under the bill.
But even before a bill has been introduced, the proposal has generated Statehouse buzz. Some lawmakers report receiving numerous calls and e-mails making allegations about what the bill would or wouldn’t do.
“There’ve been a lot of myths, a lot of misstatements of fact and flat-out lies that have been circulating about this,” Hancock said. “The same tribal officers have been enforcing state law against non-tribal members in Kootenai County, five miles away, and the sky hasn’t fallen, there’ve been no problems. We’re just trying to increase public safety for everyone on the reservation.”
Kirts said he’s tired of hearing from “whiners” about the issue, and said he doesn’t consider tribal officers to be certified officers. “Anybody can go to our academy, but you have to be a member of a state, city or county police function to be certified in Idaho — these people are not,” he said.
Kirts said when he was sheriff in the ’80s, “We had good working relations.” He blamed new tribal administration and “younger guys” for the problems, along with the tribe’s relative wealth since it opened the Coeur d’Alene Casino.
Staff writer Alison Boggs contributed to this report.