Bill would bolster tribal police

OLYMPIA — With thousands of people visiting the Tulalip Tribes’ lands to gamble or shop every week, tribal Police Chief Scott Smith wants his officers to have the same authority as any other law enforcement agent.

But currently, American Indian police officers can’t arrest a non-Indian person on tribal land.

A bill being considered by the Legislature would change that. The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a public hearing on the measure Friday. Supporters of the bill are calling it a long overdue measure of law enforcement equality.

“Our hands are tied,” said Smith, who supervises 25 tribal police officers in one of the state’s most populated reservations. “Why can’t we be on the same playing field and enforce the law equally?”

Not everyone in the law enforcement community agrees. Among the biggest opponents is the Washington Sheriff’s Association, which argues the bill muddies rules, jurisdictions and qualifications.

“What we’re concerned about as sheriffs is not having a local say in what’s going on in our county,” Yakima County Sheriff Ken Irwin said.

But the larger Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs and some individual sheriffs support the bill.

A 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said tribal police officers could not arrest non-Indians on reservation lands. The case was brought to the court by a man arrested by Suquamish tribe officers on the reservation near Poulsbo.

The bill’s sponsor, John McCoy, D-Tulalip, said his bill does not clash with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, saying the court decided on a case where the tribal officers’ training did not meet state standards. Under his measure, tribal members will meet state training standards. McCoy said other states, including New Mexico and Oklahoma, have passed similar legislation.

Opponents of the bill are concerned tribes will use their sovereign nation immunity to avoid being sued in cases of wrongdoing. The bill, however, says that tribes will waive that immunity if a tribal police officer is accused of misconduct. The tribes will also use $15 million insurance policies for the police forces.

“This is a fair and just legislation all about equal protection under the law,” McCoy said.

Proponents say reservations have become havens for criminals, where drug dealers and sex offenders often go to live.

Irwin disputed that.

“I know of no havens in the state of Washington,” Irwin said. “I really don’t know where that argument comes from. There are areas that do not receive the law enforcement necessary because of manpower shortages.”

McCoy said giving tribal police officers full jurisdiction would alleviate the officer shortage.

Newly elected Snohomish County Sheriff and former state representative John Lovick supports the measure saying the new version has addressed concerns from sheriffs.

“The bottom line is if (the officer) is qualified,” Lovick said.

McCoy said not all tribes will opt to do this, and the ones that decide to join must have their police officers qualify under state standards that include background checks and psychological tests.

Thomas Mitchell, an opponent who spoke at a hearing in the House State Government and Tribal Affairs committee last week, said census figures show that more than 80 percent of the 122,000 people living on reservations in Washington are non-Indian.

Mitchell is the president of the Marysville Tulalip Community Association, which represents the more than 2,500 nontribal members living on Tulalip lands. He said the measure fails to protect the civil rights of those who aren’t tribal members.

But Smith said tribal police need the powers to protect their communities. “I just don’t understand the fears of sheriffs or others that somehow this is gong to create a loss of power or the violation of anyone’s civil rights,” he said.

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