Like many minority communities, American Indians have often had an uneasy relationship with law enforcement, characterized by mistrust and neglect. But when President Obama signed a bill this summer designed to allow tribes to better finance and expand their own police forces, it raised a whole set of issues that now need to be dealt with.
And like many aspects of tribal policy, California has a more complex set of challenges than most other states. Many other Western states are home to large tribes with big reservations, often far from other populations.
California, by contrast, has many small tribes with a wide variety of economic circumstances. These are often located near largely-white communities with whom casino tribes have sometimes contentious relations.
Many in Indian country cheered when Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act (HR725) in July. The act made it easier for tribes to set up their own police forces and to coordinate with local law enforcement. It also provided grant money to help tribes get forces up and running.
Often, these departments hire experienced law enforcement officers who aren’t Indians. The key is that they are answerable to the community and the tribal government, said Dave Mendoza, chief of the two-person police force at the Robinson Rancheria north of Clear Lake. The tribe set up the department two years ago, with the help of a federal grant.
“It brings law enforcement back to the community policing principle, to daily interaction with the community,” said Mendoza, who, like his deputy, is not a member of the tribe. “It allows you build relationships within your community.”
But Cheryl Schmit, with the gaming watchdog group Stand Up for California, questioned whether many small tribes need their own police forces. She noted the many jurisdictional issues are popping up around tribal police forces. Another concern, she said, is the possibility that a tribal police force could be used by on side in a tribal government dispute to intimidate or coerce other members of the tribe. This is especially worrisome, given the recent history of gaming tribes kicking out disfavored members and families in order to pump up casino payments to the remaining members.
“In California, we have a lot of these postage stamp reservations or Rancherias,” she said. “It begs the question, why not do service contracts with country sheriffs or local police forces?”
This doesn’t sit well with Robinson’s Mendoza, who noted a long history of slow and inadequate responses by local law enforcement when called onto tribal lands.
“To put an Indian tribe in position where they have to fund law enforcement in order to get a law enforcement response is an outrage,” Mendoza said.
But even those who favor the expansion of tribal law enforcement say there are issues that need to be dealt with. For instance, the California State Sheriffs Association sent a letter to numerous Senators and members of Congress on July 19 over what they say is a contradiction in the bill. The federal law states that tribal police should be given access to law enforcement databases.
According to California state law, officers must be certified as California peace officers in order to have access to the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS). Since CLETS makes up part of the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS), and since the law states the tribal officers should have access to NLETS, the law is written in such a way as to say that these non-certified officers should have access to CLETS.
“The California State Sheriffs are very supportive of them increasing their professionalism and being partners in the law enforcement community,” said Amador County Sheriff Martin Ryan, one of three Sheriffs to sign the letter. “But according to the state law, they can’t have access to the date they’re seeking.”
The Sheriffs are looking for a legislative fix. Ryan noted the tribal officers can be certified as California Peace Officers, if they meet the same standards for eligibility and training as other police forces. Ryan is also the Tribal Issues Committee chair for the Sheriffs Association.
“Which was a nice quiet commission when I started this three years ago,” Ryan joked. “I think they set me up.”
That’s partly because more California tribes now have their own police forces, and those police have growing resources. Last year, the federal government handed out $732,000 in grants to four tribes to help establish or expand forces, including the Robinson Rancheria, grants the originated as part of the federal stimulus package. The federal office Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) also has various pots of money set aside for tribal law enforcement, including $4 million in grants to help fight methamphetamine production.
As tribal law forces grow, however, they’re likely to run into occasional problems with local communities. Pat Rigs in the vice chair of the Dehesa Valley Community Council. She said that the police force of the local Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation has been going off of tribal lands in response to accidents and other incidents.
“The community is trying to keep track of those,” Rigs said. “If Sycuan responds t
o the incident and the California Highway Patrol is not called, it never gets reported. They have no jurisdiction off the reservation.”
These concerns are unfounded, said Sycuan police chief Bill Denke. The tribes has land in numerous parcels, he said, many of them spread along Dehesa Road. The tribe’s police, he added, have been seen at accidents and detaining drunk drivers—all of which is done in cooperation with the CHP and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.
“There’s nothing in writing with that,” said Denke, who, like, is not a member of the tribe. “It’s a cooperative working relation. Same thing with the Highway Patrol. We’ve been here long enough we’ve been able to iron out a lot things in terms of the jurisdictional gaps. It works pretty well out here.”
In the wake of the federal bill, Denke noted, signing written agreements with these agencies has become a priority. Like his 13 deputies and six fulltime public safety community officers, Denke is not a member of the tribe. But he has worked for the Sycuan Police for 17 years, even since they put him through the police academy in his 20s.
Tom Gede, a principal of Bingham Consulting Group and counsel to Bingham McCutchen LLP, said the expansion and professionalization of tribal law enforcement has been a long time coming. In fact, he said, the federal tribal law enforcement bill didn’t really change things that much, except hastening the kinds of local agreements that have long been needed. While working the legislature a decade ago, Gede worked on an unsuccessful legislative effort to standardize the rules for tribal police forces.
There remains work to be done, Gede said. California is one of a few Western states that operates under a federal statute known as Public Law 280, which allows states and local police to enforce some federal laws on Indian lands. A lot of tribes don’t like the law—and there appear to be some incompatibilities with the language of the bill Obama signed this summer and Public Law 280 that need to be worked out.
And then there is the issue of liability — as in who gets sued if the police cause damage or anger someone enough that they file a lawsuit. Since tribes are officially sovereign governments operating within U.S. borders, they’ll actually need to sign agreements to address this issue.
“The tribe can hold their hand up, claim sovereign immunity and say ‘You can’t sue us,’” Gede said. “If properly done, this is a good thing because the tribal areas need add law enforcement resources. There is no reason why they can’t rely on their own tribal law enforcement. The only sticking point is getting over the jurisdictional laws. It seems to be a problem: Who is going to be the deep pockets if someone files and lawsuit for accident of injury?”