BOISE - The Idaho House has rejected the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s policing bill by one vote, after a tense debate that stretched for two hours.
A disappointed Rep. Julie Ellsworth, R-Boise, said afterward, “I think there’s merit to the bill - you can’t just close your eyes to it.”
Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, a retired state trooper, said he’s received hundreds of calls and e-mails threatening him and questioning his integrity for backing the bill. “I’ve had threats I’d better never go into the county again,” he said. “I’ve been called all kinds of sundry names.”
Opponents raised fears, ranging from the tribe taking away the guns of non-Indians who have concealed weapons permits and pass through the reservation to provisions of tribal code being used to impose civil penalties on non-Indians - something that already can occur today on the reservation.
“This doesn’t change anything about that,” Wills said. Instead, it addressed criminal violations - saying tribal police officers could enforce state law against non-tribal members, but they’d have to be cited under state law and into state court.
“This allows them to use the state court,” Wills said.
Midway through the stormy debate, House GOP Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, tried to move the bill to the House’s amending order to add a series of amendments he said he’d worked out with various parties - not including the tribe or Benewah County.
That drew vehement debate against his motion from members of the House Judiciary Committee, who voted down such a motion after a six-hour hearing last week, instead voting to send the bill to the full House as is for an up-or-down vote.
“I’m tired of the games,” Ellsworth declared.
After multiple House members spoke out against the motion and called for respecting the House’s committee process, Roberts withdrew his motion.
When Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, tried to suggest that the Coeur d’Alene Tribe will take people’s guns if they come onto the reservation with concealed weapons permits, Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, gave a blistering rebuttal. When the NRA brought up an “eleventh hour” concern, Nonini said, the tribal council held an emergency meeting this week and changed its tribal code. But it never would have been an issue in the first place, he and others said.
“There are ghosts and goblins out there that people are trying to come up with … that don’t exist,” Nonini said.
The tribe last year dropped proposed legislation when just as lawmakers were getting ready to pass it, Benewah County agreed to a cross-deputization agreement. Then, after the legislative session ended, the county backed out of the agreement.
Wills, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, spent a week traveling to Benewah County in December to try to broker a deal, and an agreement again was reached — and again the county backed out.
The new bill, HB 111, wouldn’t require the county to be involved; tribal police officers could function as police officers under state law if they had all the required training and insurance and cite all nontribal criminal offenders into state court, not tribal court.
Since Benewah County suspended its cross-deputization agreement with the tribal police in 2007, tribal officers have had to detain people they stop until a county or state officer shows up to take over the arrest; if they don’t show up in time, the offender goes free.
“This is a public safety issue,” Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, the bill’s House sponsor, told lawmakers.
The tribe has continued to have a successful cross-deputization deal with Kootenai County. Sims noted that under federal law, the tribe could federalize its officers and cite non-Indians into federal court; it doesn’t want to do so and instead wants to operate under state law.
Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, told the House, “I stand here with a heavy heart today to debate this bill.” He said some have accused people from his county of being racist. “I’ll tell you that’s nothing more than hate speech and that is not true, it is definitely not true. It’s highly offensive to me and to the people of my county,” he said.
He told the House, “It’s hard for me to debate this bill because both the county members and the tribal members are my constituents. And the very reason that we’re here is because the tribal council wants us to be here.” Harwood said he opposes HB 111 because “This bill will give the power to an entity that is not accountable to the people that it has the power over. That flies right in the face of everything this country’s about, doesn’t it? It sure seems like it to me,” he said. “HB 111 diminishes Idaho sovereignties by setting a precedent to further expand federal and tribal authority over Idaho citizens.”
Harwood said, “This is a local matter really, and it should be solved at the local level.” He also questioned the bill’s fiscal note, which shows no cost to the state. “What about all the people that they’re going to be sending to the state jails?” he asked. He said, “Tribal police are for the tribal members only.”
Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, debating in favor of the bill, told the House, “I’ve grown weary of the arguments I’ve heard about this for the past two or three years. The whole issue is just to provide proper law enforcement within the bounds of the reservation.” He said he found the continuing dispute “baffling” and said, “I get bothered when I hear that the Indians are a sovereign nation and they already have too many benefits, don’t give them more. I think that’s a poor argument. You know, we’re all Idahoans.”
Shirley said he was stunned to hear that the first question a dispatcher asks in Benewah County is whether the person calling in with an emergency is an Indian or non-Indian. That’s just not right, he said. “This action now compromises safety, cost-effectiveness and just plain good neighborly coexistence.” The dispute, Shirley said, boils down to “prejudices and biases that are counterproductive to improved law enforcement. … Not only is it a safety issue for the officers, but I think it’s a safety issue for the public as well.”