Coeur d'Alene back at Capitol seeking arrest power

By John Miller
Boise, Idaho (AP) January 2011

A northern Idaho Indian tribe was back at the Capitol last week, asking lawmakers to resolve gaps in its law enforcement system by giving tribal police officers the authority to arrest non-tribal members.

The Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe thought it had a cross-deputization agreement worked out a deal with Benewah County after pressure to resolve the issue during the 2010 Legislature.

Last March, lawmakers gave the county six days to come up with an agreement to resolve the matter.

But Indian leaders said Benewah County reneged after lawmakers had left Boise, so they now have no other choice than to again seek help from the state. The Indians’ lobbyist even raised the prospect of intervention from Washington, D.C., if Idaho lawmakers don’t act.

Helo Hancock, the tribe’s attorney, contends Benewah County elected officials including Sheriff Robert Kirts thumbed their noses at the pact worked at last year. Racial tensions also have been injected into the debate: Hancock, who isn’t a tribal member, said Coeur d’Alene Indians have come to him complaining they’ve been refused service in restaurants in St. Maries, Benewah County’s seat.

“There’s just a group of folks who are not open to working with the tribe,” Hancock said. “The average wait time for our officers when they do detain somebody who is non-Indian is close to an hour. Often times, you’re just sitting there, waiting for hours. It’s just so inefficient.”

According to the bill introduced last week, the state would give tribal police officers authority to arrest non-tribal members must be certified by Idaho’s police academy; arrests must be processed in state, not tribal courts; Indian tribal officers must maintain $2 million in insurance; and tribes must waive their sovereign immunity from lawsuits.

The Coeur d’Alene reservation’s checkerboard property ownership – its 10,000 residents include about 8,600 nonmembers – contributes to the problem: Tribal officers often encounter crimes committed by nonmembers in both Kootenai and Benewah counties.

The tribe has a cross-deputization agreement with Kootenai County that allows its 13 full-time officers and five reservists to arrest non-tribal members on the reservation there.

On the tribe’s territory located within Benewah County, however, Coeur d’Alene tribal police can only detain non-tribal members, but must wait for Benewah County officers to arrive before they can be arrested.

The Coeur d’Alenes contend the county’s conduct results in some 90 non-Indians monthly who are suspected of crimes from domestic violence and drunken driving to serious criminal assaults being freed without prosecution.

Kirts, who in the past has called the tribe’s version of events misleading, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment last week.

The Coeur d’Alene reservation’s problem isn’t unique.

Law enforcement jurisdiction conflict like this exist on many Indian reservations across America, where disputes over just who can arrest who on these sovereign, largely rural enclaves undermines the public safety of the thousands of Indians and non-Indians who live on them.

Bipartisan federal legislation passed last July by Congress – one of its co-sponsors was U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho – was aimed at increasing the powers of those tribal police who can’t now arrest non-Indians on their reservations.

It was in response to violence rates on reservations that exceed the national average.

But in Idaho, where lawmakers often wring their hands over federal intervention into state business, they were told by the Coeur d’Alene tribe’s lobbyist Bill Roden that they could take matters into state hands by passing this measure.

“The federal government has recognized that it’s a problem,” Roden told lawmakers on the House State Affairs Committee. “Frankly, it is such a severe problem that unless this is addressed at the state level, we’re merely inviting further federal action.”