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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Tribe-county kerfuffle’s real victim is the public

A stubborn clash was reignited last week between the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe and Benewah County over tribal police authority. It may look like a routine he-said-she-said standoff, but the evidence convincingly favors the tribe.

The question is, who altered an agreement that was worked out in a short, tense negotiation intended to avoid legislative intervention?

The tribe says Benewah County officials made dozens of substantive changes before finally returning a signed agreement to the tribe, which had signed it right after it was presented a month earlier to the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee. Benewah County Prosecutor Doug Payne contends the tribe made the changes.

Minutes of the committee’s March 17 meeting record that Idaho Sheriff’s Association lawyer Michael Kane told committee members an agreement on cross-deputization had been reached and “will be signed by all elected officials.”

Copies were distributed to the committee; tribal leaders signed within days and sent it to county commissioners, who had it roughly a month with no public complaint about any alterations.

A couple of credible, independent witnesses agree that the document signed by county commissioners was substantially revised. State Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, the committee chairman, is one. Executive Director Vaughn Killeen of the Sheriff’s Association is another.

We can see why the tribe is furious, but the real victim of the dispute is the public, which has the most to lose when law and order are undermined.

The tribal police force once had a cross-deputization agreement that allowed its state-certified, professional officers to enforce the law on that portion of the reservation within Benewah County, regardless of whether a suspect was Indian or non-Indian. (Such a pact is in force in Kootenai County and works fine.)

But Benewah County Sheriff Bob Kirts has canceled the agreement, gutting tribal officers’ authority in areas ranging from boating infractions to domestic violence on the reservation, where six out of seven residents are nonmembers.

It shouldn’t take the Legislature to solve this. It shouldn’t take mediators and arbitrators. It should take nothing more than the same kind of goodwill and respect for public safety that has worked well between the tribe and Kootenai County.

As the minutes from that March 17 legislative committee meeting so hopefully put it, “Bringing the parties together was in everyone’s interest.”

Someone tell that to the Benewah County commissioners.