BOISE – Idaho lawmakers are stepping up the pressure on Benewah County and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe to reach a cross-deputization agreement, after a four-hour hearing Thursday that left some appalled.
“I just wish you guys wouldn’t even be here today, and you would just sit down and come to an agreement,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle. “I don’t understand why we have public safety officers that are just sitting there waiting for a long time for another public safety officer to respond to a call. I don’t understand why we’re allowing crimes to occur in the community and nothing’s being done about it. It just really troubles me.”
After a hearing packed with uniformed law enforcement officers, tribal representatives, county sheriffs, lobbyists, legislators and more, the House Judiciary Committee voted to put off a decision on HB 500, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s law enforcement legislation, for six days, in hopes the two sides can reach an agreement before then.
But committee members made it clear they were ready to do something: Two other motions were proposed to move the bill on to the full House with technical amendments attached, a step toward passing it.
Rep. Donna Boe, D-Pocatello, suggested passing the bill with an enactment date in 2011, to see if that would spur the county to the negotiating table. Rep. Steve Kren, R-Nampa, said, “I’m content with moving this bill forward with the amendments to give some time for some last-minute negotiations, if you will.”
County and tribal representatives huddled after the hearing and agreed to another negotiating session today.
“It’s still alive,” said House Judiciary Chairman Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake. “I think we’re going to get something out of it – I don’t know what.”
Lawmakers heard chilling stories from Coeur d’Alene Tribal Police officers, a local firefighter and others: Criminals going free; tribal officers tied up for hours waiting for deputies to respond and take over an arrest when they’re needed to address other crimes; and a county refusal to dispatch a fire EMS crew when a tribal judge suffered a heart attack at a school – even though the fire station was just three blocks away – until its own deputies were on the scene. The judge died.
“Criminals know that we can’t act in Benewah County,” Keith Hutcheson, Coeur d’Alene Tribal Police chief, told lawmakers. “We experience a slow to no response from the Benewah County Sheriff’s Department, causing a great risk to my officers.”
The legislation encourages Idaho tribes and county sheriffs to reach cooperative agreements for law enforcement within reservations; if an agreement isn’t reached after six months of negotiations, tribal police officers could begin enforcing state laws against non-tribal members on the reservation if they are state-certified, send all cases to state courts, and the tribe carries liability insurance and waives its sovereign immunity so it can be sued in cases of officer wrongdoing.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe had cross-deputization agreements with both Kootenai and Benewah counties, but the Benewah County sheriff revoked that county’s agreement in 2007. Now, the tribe says its officers on the Benewah County portion of its reservation are stopping drunken drivers and being called to crime scenes, but can’t arrest non-tribal members, and sheriff’s officers aren’t showing up to make the arrests for them.
Chief Allan, Coeur d’Alene tribal chairman, said, “These are actually bad guys getting away. … I’m not making this stuff up – this is what’s happening.”
Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, said, “The thing that strikes me is we wouldn’t even be here if both sides had negotiated in good faith. … Why hasn’t that happened?”
Bill Roden, lobbyist for the tribe, responded, “All the sheriff has to do is say ‘no.’ … He’s got all the cards. We’re asking for a fair shot, at least, in coming to the table.”
Benewah County Sheriff Bob Kirts sat in the front row of the large audience, but never spoke, leaving that instead to county Prosecutor Douglas Payne. Payne said the bill “upsets a balance of power which exists right now between tribal and county governments,” but he said the county remains willing to talk with the tribe.