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Fear Of Lawsuits Stalls Police Cooperation County, Tribal Officials Would Like To Cross-Deputize Their Officers

Coeur d’Alene tribal police must often stand by in frustration, unable to arrest wife beaters or investigate crime scenes until sheriff’s deputies arrive.

Likewise, the deputies often are legally handcuffed themselves, not allowed to arrest a tribal member who is crosswise with the law.

So why don’t the Benewah County sheriff and tribal police chief Harold Scott cross-deputize their officers?

They’d love to, but are stymied by concerns about liability.

Sheriff Joe Blackburn deputized two tribal officers before being told by county commissioners to stop the practice.

“It would mean better police coverage,” said Blackburn. “We’re spread pretty thin. If somebody sends a call for help over on the west end of the county, they don’t really care what color uniform that officer is wearing. They want him there, and they want him fast.”

Blackburn has waited a couple of months for a ruling from the county’s insurer, the Idaho Counties Risk Management Program.

The question that looms is whether the county would be adequately protected against lawsuits stemming from the action of deputized tribal officers.

Liability fears caused Kootenai County Sheriff Pierce Clegg to nix the cross-deputization idea in January.

Tribal officials have discussed the issue with both sheriffs’ departments over the last few months. Tara Algood, tribal attorney, said she is baffled by the delay and focus on liability.

“We are independently insured,” she said. “States and tribes and localities and municipalities do this all the time across the country.”

ICRIMP’s administrator and attorney were unavailable for comment on Monday regarding the delay.

Benewah County Commissioner Jack Buell agreed that the wait for an answer has been long. Buell, who sits on ICRIMP’s board of directors, thinks the liability problems can be worked out.

There’s no question that the tribal officers are good, Buell said.

“These people are going through the (police) academy. They’ve got the same qualifications as everyone else.”

Sheriff’s deputies must graduate from Idaho’s Peace Officers Standards and Training Academy. Five of the eight tribal officers have done so, and tribal police chief Harold Scott is eager to have all five deputized.

“The other officers, including myself, attended the Indian Police Academy in Artesia, N.M.,” said Scott. “That (program) is twice as long as POST.”

Capt. Ben Wolfinger, spokesman for the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department, said that Idaho doesn’t recognize the tribal police departments because tribes are sovereign nations. However, state law specifically recognizes Indian police officers who have been deputized by a sheriff or city police chief.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe has eight officers, compared to Benewah County’s six. The 600,000-acre reservation covers more than half the county, with officers focusing their attention on the small western communities of Tensed, DeSmet, Plummer and Worley.

“On the western side of Benewah County and the southern side of Kootenai County, we’re visible,” said Scott. “There’s only two days out of the week that we’re not offering 24-hour coverage.”

Calls for the tribal police are dispatched through the Benewah sheriff’s office. The tribal officers respond to all calls within the reservation, although their assignment is to enforce tribal laws.

Unless the suspect is an Indian, they can’t do more than detain him and secure the crime scene.

The officers must wait, sometimes for more than an hour, for a sheriff’s deputy to arrive. The waits are longest in Worley, which is in Kootenai County.

Non-Indian residents don’t seem to resent tribal officers showing up, Scott said.

“But a lot of times non-Indians feel resentment because we’re not able to do anything. And that makes us upset, too - that we can’t respond professionally.”

Adding to Scott and Blackburn’s frustration is that both have been cross-deputized in the past: Scott, when he was a Bureau of Indian Affairs officer, and Blackburn, when he worked for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game within reservation boundaries.

Neither man is sure why the practice ended. “It could have been a turf battle,” said Blackburn.

They are also puzzled by the persistent liability issue, to the point of wondering if that is the real hangup.

“Maybe they’re turning it into a political issue,” said Blackburn. “I don’t even like to think it could be racial.”

Apparently, there are no Indian police cross-deputized in Idaho today. In Washington, the arrangement seems to be working well between the Colville Confederated Tribes and the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department.

Sheriff Jim Weed used the example of a stabbing that occurred in a tribal housing unit north of Omak, which is far from the reservation headquarters in Nespelem.

“We got there first, contained the scene, started the investigation,” said Weed. “Then we called the tribe, and they sent their officers out. They were an hour or better getting there.”

Weed remains uneasy about the liability issue. But he said the sheriff’s department and tribe have put a great deal of effort into working cooperatively.

Cross-deputization wouldn’t work everywhere, Weed said, noting dissension between tribes and other county governments.

Success, he said, “depends on a commitment to training and communication.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: STATUS There are no Indian police cross-deputized in Idaho today.

This sidebar appeared with the story: STATUS There are no Indian police cross-deputized in Idaho today.

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