BOISE - Benewah County reneged on a deal with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe on policing last spring, the tribe told lawmakers Thursday, so it’s time to just pass a state law letting tribal police officers enforce state laws.
“That agreement was not signed, which necessitates coming back before the Legislature and asking for a resolution of this issue,” the tribe’s lobbyist, Bill Roden, told the House State Affairs Committee on Thursday. “We think that this bill is in the interest of public safety.”
The committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill, clearing the way for full hearings on it.
Last year, lawmakers were on the verge of passing a bill the tribe proposed, HB 500, when the tribe and the county reached agreement on cross-deputization, and the tribe dropped the bill. “A week later, it all fell apart,” said Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry.
Wills, the new House Judiciary Committee chairman and a retired state trooper, traveled to Benewah County in December to try to get the two sides back to the table to reach an agreement. Things looked promising, he said. “When I left there, I thought we had a good understanding, but it didn’t materialize - the county wouldn’t even come back to the table.”
Helo Hancock, legislative director for the tribe, said, “Obviously we were extremely disappointed. We felt like we’d been deceived in a lot of ways, that it was just an act to get out of getting a law passed.”
Benewah County Sheriff Bob Kirts disputed that. “If you agree in principle, it’s not a final contract,” he said. “They said, ‘No, you can’t make any changes to what you agreed to in Boise.’ That’s not how it works.”
The tribe said the county proposed about 50 changes to the agreement after the Legislature adjourned last spring.
The new bill drops clauses proposed last year calling for a six-month window to reach a collaborative cross-deputization agreement with a county. Instead, it just echoes laws from other states, including Kansas, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona, clarifying that tribal police with all required training and legal indemnification can enforce state laws. There’s no requirement for agreements with the county.
Kirts said, “If the state wants to be responsible for them, let ‘em have a ball.”
Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, said, “I think I understand the value of the cross-deputization, because I was a county commissioner when we did that in the early ‘80s in Kootenai County, and it was to the advantage of law enforcement at that time. I continue to believe it is a benefit, properly done, and I’m hopeful that the bill that comes forward today will find acceptance.”
Roden said a new federal law - sponsored in part by Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson - allows tribal police officers to enforce federal law on reservations, and if necessary, to cite violators of state law into federal court. “That is not the desire of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, to use that,” Roden told the committee. “But frankly it is such a severe problem that unless this is addressed at the state level, we’re merely inviting further federal action, and the current law that is on the books would permit that.”
Henderson said the federal law is a concern for him. “We would rather control our own destiny,” he said.
Idaho’s other Indian tribes support the legislation, Roden said, but may not invoke it on their reservations. The Kootenai Tribe, for example, doesn’t have its own police force and instead contracts with local law enforcement agencies. The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes certify their officers through the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe long has had a cross-deputization agreement with Kootenai County, and it had one with Benewah County until the sheriff there revoked it in October of 2007.
Relations between the county and the tribe deteriorated further in July of 2008, after tribal police marine officers pulled over county Commission Chairman Jack Buell and his wife, Eleanor, for violating a no-wake zone on Lake Coeur d’Alene. A confrontation ensued in which Buell and his wife vociferously questioned the tribal officers’ authority, according to police reports, asking questions like, “Do you Indians know where you are?” Mrs. Buell was accused of striking one of the officers.
Last March, lawmakers heard chilling testimony from tribal police officers, a local firefighter and others, that criminals are going free in Benewah County as a result of the dispute. “Criminals know that we can’t act in Benewah County,” tribal police Chief Keith Hutcheson testified.
Tribal officers, who attend the same police academy as state officers, now can’t arrest non-Indians on the reservation, so they can be tied up for hours waiting for county deputies to respond and take over an arrest when they’re needed to go address other crimes. In one case, according to last spring’s testimony, the county refused 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.
Kirts and county Prosecutor Doug Payne said the county objects to allowing any non-tribal members to be cited into tribal court, though they acknowledged they agreed that for violations on Lake Coeur d’Alene - where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the tribe owns the southern third of the lake - people could be given their choice of going to state or tribal court.
“We agreed to that on the lake only,” Payne said.
Payne said the county doesn’t want that same deal for highway speeding violations, which the tribe offered in December; it wants non-Indians cited only into state court. More serious crimes, like DUIs, automatically go to state court if the offenders are non-tribal members.
Kirts said Thursday, “Tribal court has no jurisdiction over non-Indians. … That’s something we would never agree to.”