House kills bill to give tribes arrest power

By John Miller (AP)February 2011

The House recently killed an Idaho tribe’s push to allow its officers to arrest non-Indians without permission from the local sheriff after debate that included accusations of racial bias.

The vote was 34-35, ending what the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe had hoped would remedy a dispute with Benewah County. The two sides had a cross-deputization pact until 2007, but it unraveled amid intense acrimony.

Currently, the tribe’s police force can detain non-Indians on the reservation who are suspected of breaking the law. But its officers can’t arrest them without a pact with Benewah County. Tribal officers say they waited more than 1,000 hours combined last year before county or the Idaho State Police officers arrived to take over, wasting time, money and creating a public-safety gap.

During the debate, Republican Rep. Dick Harwood of Benewah County said he was offended by the suggestion that this impasse was the result of racial tensions between county residents and the tribe. Harwood argued the bill should be killed because it would give the tribe power over non-Indians who live on the reservation but can’t vote in its tribal government.

“It’s not racist,” he said. “It’s their fear of losing their civil liberties.”

The conflict between the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe and residents of Benewah County has roots in a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision that gave Indians ownership of the southern third of Lake Coeur d’Alene, where the county is located.

According to the bill, tribal police officers would first have to be certified by Idaho’s police academy. All violations of state laws, including speeding tickets, would have to be prosecuted in state, not tribal courts. And tribes would have waived their sovereign immunity from lawsuits.

But Benewah County also wanted an agreement from the Coeur d’Alenes not to write citations to non-Indians for violations of its own tribal laws, including those governing water quality, docks on the lake or field burning. The Idaho Association of Counties as well as state law enforcement organizations, supported the county’s position and opposed the bill.

Supporters of the bill, however, including Republican Rep. Mack Shirley of Rexburg, blamed Benewah County’s non-Indians for allowing historical racial tensions to prevent an agreement over policing duties – and compromising public safety.

“It’s all because of, in my opinion, prejudice and biases that are counterproductive to good law enforcement,” Shirley said. “This ongoing war has got to stop. We’re all Idahoans. It’s time we all live together as citizens in common cause.”

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

The tribe gets along well with Kootenai County, where there’s a cross-deputization pact in place.

But rancor with Benewah County has persisted – and gotten worse: A pact reached in the 2010 Legislature last spring to resume the cross-deputization agreement disintegrated, resulting in finger-pointing from both sides.

When the tribe returned to the Legislature this year, its leaders said their only other alternative was to pursue expanded law enforcement authority under a federal law passed by Congress last year meant to help address public safety gaps on Indian reservations across the nation.

If it does that, however, any non-Indians arrested on the reservation would have to go to federal, not state court.

Marc Stewart, a spokesman for the tribe, said the tribe was “extremely disappointed” with the result.

“Despite this setback, the tribe is determined to protect the reservation community,” Stewart told The Associated Press. “The tribe is going to explore all its options, including federally deputizing its police department. (That) is really the last choice, but that’s the road we’re on now.”