Tribal police have a growing presence

Like many minority communities, American Indians have often had an uneasy relationship with law enforcement, characterized by mistrust and neglect.

For decades, many tribes have dealt with this problem by creating their own police forces. Fueled by greater financial resources and support from the federal government, a growing number of tribes are creating new forces, or expanding existing ones.

Some law enforcement groups and local citizens are raising concerns about jurisdiction, liability and access to law enforcement databases. Meanwhile, some tribal representatives say these groups are trying to thwart the efforts of tribal departments to protect their citizens and expand their capabilities.

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. Four California tribes shared in a $732,000 federal grant earlier this year. The feds also offer up several other programs that tribal police forces can apply for, including millions set aside for fighting methamphetamine.

Often, tribal 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 that 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 one 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.

There is also an ongoing dispute between the California State Sheriffs’ Association and some tribes over access to the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS). On July 19, the Sheriffs sent a letter to numerous U.S. Senators and members of Congress raising concerns over the portions of the new federal law stating that tribes should have access to law enforcement databases.

“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 issue, he said, is whether tribal officers have met the standards of training and certification that other police forces have been required to meet. According to Ryan, the federal law demands that tribal officers be allowed access to CLETS, whether they have reached these milestones or not.

But Lester Marston, who represents both the Robinson Rancheria and the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians, claims the Sheriffs’ Association, is raising illegitimate issues as part of a turf war with tribal police forces. Like many tribes, the Robinson Rancheria’s officers are certified as deputies by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, making them full-fledged federal law enforcement officers.  This means they have access to the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (NLETS), of which CLETS is merely a part.

Marston claimed to have correspondence between the Robinson Rancheria and the Sheriff’s Association showing that the group was using false pretenses in an attempt to block their access to CLETS. He declined to provide this without permission from the tribe, which he did not have as of press time. But he did say this follows a long history of lack of cooperation by local police with tribal police.

“They have no problem letting criminals go free,” Marston said. “They got no problem leaving federal law enforcement officers in danger. They’ve got no problem leaving tribal people in danger.”

As the number of tribal law forces grow, however, they’re likely to run into occasional problems with local communities. Pat Rigs is 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 to 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 have 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. “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 of 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 in the legislature a decade ago, Gede worked on an unsuccessful legislative effort to standardize the rules for tribal police forces.

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 t
ribes 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 to 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 a lawsuit for accident or injury?”

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: