Tribal police to gain power to arrest non-Indians

TULALIP — Tulalip Tribal police officers soon will have the power to protect their community — all of it.

Newly minted Sheriff John Lovick plans to cross commission 17 of the 22 tribal officers on Friday. That act will give tribal officers authority to arrest non-Indians on the reservation, where the vast majority of people who live, work and visit aren’t tribal members.

This should leave no doubt that the tribal police have the right to stop, and arrest, all criminals on the reservation. It should also put an end to any debate about tribal police officers’ authority over non-Indians, Lovick said.

“It’s their jurisdiction. We’re going let them handle their jurisdiction,” he said.

The partnership is the first in Snohomish County.

Former Snohomish County Sheriff Rick Bart didn’t grant commissions to any tribal officers, except to former Tulalip Tribal Police Chief Jay Goss. He did not believe they met the qualifications of other sworn officers.

Over the years, a group of non-Indians living on the reservation have contested the tribal officers’ authority, leading to dangerous confrontations.

In one incident, a woman attempted to interfere with tribal police who stopped a suspected drunken driver from escaping into a house.

As they were putting the man in their cruiser, to wait for the State Patrol to arrest him, an agitated woman approached the officers, screaming “time out” and arguing that they didn’t have the right to stop the suspect because the man wasn’t a tribal member.

Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington, later suggested that non-Indian drivers flash a card during traffic stops made by Tulalip Tribal Police. The card was intended to serve as notice to the officers that the driver was not required to recognize their authority.

Snohomish County criminal justice officials publicly opposed the idea and urged anyone police stopped on the reservation to obey the officers’ commands and save arguments over jurisdiction for court.

Lovick believes giving tribal police officers the authority to arrest nontribal criminals will increase police protection on the reservation and relieve some of the workload for his deputies.

Approximately 80 percent of the people who live on the 22,000-acre reservation are non-Indian and the majority of the 20,000 to 30,000 people who visit the reservation each day aren’t tribal members.

Without the deputization, “I can’t protect my community, and that’s just ludicrous,” new Tulalip Tribal Police Chief Scott Smith said. Such agreements are not even necessary for city police officers.

“We’re as professional a police department as any other,” Smith said. “This isn’t going to be a haven for you because you’re not an Indian.”

Smith, who took over for Goss in January, was chief of police in Mountlake Terrace for seven years.

Under the previous rules, tribal police could investigate any crime or stop anyone on the reservation. But if the suspect wasn’t a tribal member, the officers were required to call a sheriff’s deputy or Washington State Patrol trooper to make the arrest.

That meant waiting for a deputy to be free. As the clock ran, tribal officers knew they had only about an hour to detain someone before it could be considered an unlawful arrest.

“We’re at the mercy of their call load,” Smith said. “We have to kick them loose or hope the deputy gets there damn quick.”

Smith and Lovick worked together to make sure tribal officers met all of the same qualifications required for sheriff’s deputies. A sheriff’s lieutenant spent a week reviewing the officers’ backgrounds and training, Lovick said.

Tribal police officers must have completed training at the state academy, or equivalency training, and passed a polygraph and psychological evaluation.

“There’s nothing to worry about — these are well qualified, well-trained officers,” Lovick said. “I think people will be pleased with the level and quality of service they provide.”

Smith believes giving his officers expanded authority will make for more efficient policing. It’s not going to mean that his officers will be booking everyone into jail. If someone is arrested for investigation of a serious crime or one that requires a mandatory arrest, such as a domestic violence assault, or if officers can’t verify a person’s name, that person will be locked up, he said.

His department also will train with the sheriff’s office and call on sheriff’s deputies to assist with major crimes involving non-Indians. The FBI has jurisdiction in major criminal investigations on Indian reservations.

Friday’s cross commission will come just two weeks after Gov. Chris Gregoire signed legislation that allows tribal police to expand their authority on Indian reservations.

The legislation was sponsored by John McCoy, D-Tulalip. The law requires tribal police officers to be state certified. Tribes also must obtain liability insurance and waive sovereign nation immunity if the police department is sued or an officer is accused of misconduct.

“It’s landmark,” McCoy said. “The whole thing is that it’s equal justice for all. We can’t have a haven for people and not have them responsible for their actions.”

The law closes some important gaps, said Mike Lasnier, legislative chairman for the Northwest Association of Tribal Enforcement Officers and Suquamish tribal police chief on the Port Madison reservation near Poulsbo.

No longer will tribal police authority be completely dependant on the relationship between a tribal police chief and the county sheriff, he said.

Opponents don’t believe the legislation is constitutional.

“The tribe doesn’t have the right to do this,” said Tom Mitchell, president of the Marysville Tulalip Community Association. He testified in January against the legislation.

He isn’t opposed to greater police protection but the new law doesn’t protect the civil rights of nontribal members, Mitchell said.

Smith recognizes that his officers’ expanded authority may cause some unease among residents, but he encourages anyone with concerns to contact him.

“I know the whole world is watching, by that I mean those who might be skeptical about the authority granted to us,” he said. “It’s an issue and perception from the past but at some point we have to say ‘enough’ and give these guys a shot.”

Tulalip Tribal Police Sgt. Jeff Jira said the expanded authority is an honor that he and his fellow officers take seriously.

He believes he’ll be able to do his job more efficiently. There is no reason to burden a sheriff’s deputy with more work when tribal officers are already there to do the job, he said.

“I think the only ones who should be opposed are the criminals,” Jira said.

Reporter Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463 or

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