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Benewah sheriff’s take on tribal cops wrong

In a reasonable world, a public-safety measure like one the Idaho Legislature should see in the coming days would not be necessary. But sometimes the world is decidedly unreasonable – like the part under the jurisdiction of Benewah County Sheriff Bob Kirts.

Kirts refuses to restore an agreement that would empower Coeur d’Alene Indian tribal police to enforce state laws against nontribal members on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, the southern half of which lies in Benewah County. The result is a bewildering web of inefficiencies that seems to have sprung from Alice’s Wonderland.

If, for example, a tribal officer spots an erratic driver weaving menacingly down U.S. 95 near Plummer, he can pull the motorist over and take whatever enforcement action is necessary – so long as the offender is a tribal member. If it’s a nontribal member – and they outnumber tribal members six to one on the reservation – he has to call in either the county sheriff’s office or the Idaho State Police.

On the rural and sometimes remote reservation, that can take hours, tying up both tribal and nontribal officers for wasteful periods. And sometimes there’s no response at all, or only after such a delay that the officer has to turn the dangerous driver loose.

A few miles north, in Kootenai County, it’s a different story. The tribal officer would have authority to arrest the driver and send the case to state court. Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson has approved the kind of agreement that Kirts refuses.

Now, delete “erratic driving” and substitute “domestic violence” or “burglary” or other serious felonies that don’t constitute major offenses that would bring the FBI to the reservation. A qualified tribal officer should not have to radio for help in such situations and wait, possibly hours, for it to arrive.

In Wonderland maybe, but not in Benewah County.

All of this is why the tribe is asking for a law that would establish conditions under which its officers could acquire state enforcement powers on the reservation even if the local sheriff was as unaccommodating as Kirts. One of those conditions calls for tribal officers to be certified, which they already are. The tribe would also have to carry liability insurance and waive sovereignty protection against lawsuits. That concept works in Washington, and it could work in Idaho.

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