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Benewah, tribe solve policing stalemate

Last-minute pact puts legislation on ice

BOISE – Benewah County and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe have reached a deal on policing on the reservation, just in time to head off state legislation that was up for a vote Wednesday afternoon.

“I think sometimes it takes legislation to bring all parties together,” said state Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “They do have an agreement in principle, and I think it’s a great outcome for public safety.”

Helo Hancock, legislative director for the tribe, asked the panel to hold the tribe’s legislation in committee; it would have allowed Idaho tribes to begin enforcing state laws against non-Indians on reservations when sheriffs won’t negotiate collaborative agreements.

Benewah County Sheriff Bob Kirts greeted lawmakers after the meeting, introducing himself, shaking hands and apologizing for not testifying during a tense hearing on the bill, HB 500, last week.

Kirts said after the meeting, “I was there in the ’80s – actually I started this program of deputizing these guys, and I got in trouble then, now I get in trouble for not doing it. So what the hell.”

The tribe and county had a cross-deputization agreement until 2007, when Kirts revoked it, though the tribe still has a similar agreement for the Kootenai County portion of its reservation. At last week’s hearing, numerous people testified that criminals are going free on the reservation because of the law enforcement jurisdiction gap, which leaves tribal officers unable to enforce state laws against nontribal members – who make up a large majority of residents on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation.

Last week, lawmakers on the committee voted to hold off on a vote for six days, strongly urging the two sides to reach an agreement in the interest of public safety.

The cross-deputization agreement includes these provisions:

• Tribal police officers will be sheriff’s deputies, and Benewah County deputies and tribal officers will enforce each other’s laws.

• Both the tribe and the county agreed to indemnification to allow lawsuits over officer wrongdoing.

• Tribal officers won’t cite nontribal members into tribal court, only into state court, except under the Safe Boating Act; misdemeanor and felony violators under the SBA will be cited into state court, and infraction offenders will be given a choice of whether they’re cited into tribal or state court.

• Disputes between the county and tribe would be resolved through nonbinding arbitration, and the agreement would be up for automatic renewal each year, but either side could end it at the point of renewal.

The 10-page agreement in principle still needs signatures from the county sheriff and commissioners and approval from the tribal council and tribal police chief. “They’ve tentatively agreed to it,” Hancock said. “We all believe that this bill, HB 500, was instrumental in getting the parties to the table and maybe having more fruitful discussions about law enforcement issues on our reservation.”

State Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, said with all the controversy over the proposed legislation, “it’s going to take a little healing.”

Kirts said, “It’s an agreement. We’ll see if it works out, and go from there. I took a lot of abuse over this.” Asked if he’s happy with the deal the tribe and county reached yesterday, Kirts replied, “From what I can see right now, yes.”

Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said, “I believe once all the rhetoric calmed down everyone wanted the same thing – public safety.”

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