Election Section

Tribes push for full police powers

By Michelle DeArmond The Associated Press
Thursday November 22, 2001

LOS ANGELES — If it weren’t for the intervention of local sheriff’s deputies, Tim Moore figures Indian security officers would have kicked him out of his Colorado River home years ago. 

Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies have had to step in more than once to diffuse disputes in a long battle over who owns or has lease rights to a stretch of riverfront properties on the California-Arizona line. 

Moore and other critics said Indian officers are concerned only about tribal members and tribal needs and are overzealous when it comes to trying to police non-Indians. 

Under a bill before the state Legislature, such tribal security officers on reservations across California could gain full police powers, just like other state, county and city law enforcement officers. They would have the authority to arrest and jail non-Indians. 

Critics fear tribes would misuse their power and put tribal interests above the law while remaining untouchable in the courts because their reservations are sovereign entities. 

“It would be an absolute disaster. We would be up the proverbial crick without a paddle,” Moore said. “I’m fearful that bias would creep into tribal police policies, and we don’t have the ability to bring them before a judge.” 

Moore is not alone in his opposition to the bill written by state Sen. Richard Alarcon, D-San Fernando, a longtime friend to California’s tribes and recipient of their political contributions. Activists, prosecutors and law enforcement officials all have pointed out the legislation’s potential risks. 

Alarcon introduced the two-year bill in February and hopes to bring it before the full Senate next year, but it has attracted little mainstream attention. Questions regarding liability in cases of potential police misconduct and accidents remain among the most contentious of the unresolved issues. 

“You have to exercise accountability and responsibility,” said Cheryl Schmit of Stand Up for California, a group that fought the legalization of Indian gambling. “People don’t invite other people into their homes without providing for their safety.” 

Some tribes already require their security officers to meet the same standards required of other law enforcement officers across the state. In its current form, the bill would give those officers the full powers and duties of California peace officers, with access to criminal databases and the authority to enforce state and tribal laws on the reservation. In certain instances, they also would have jurisdiction off the reservation. 

Supporters of the measure said it’s long overdue, saying the need for tribal law enforcement has increased with the growth in Indian gambling and other ventures. More than 40 of the state’s 108 tribes lure non-Indians onto reservations with casinos and other enterprises, such as outlet malls and hotels. 

California’s tribes have suffered from a historic lack of law enforcement that experts said took a turn for the worse in 1953. 

That year, Congress passed a law giving state and local governments, instead of the federal government, criminal jurisdiction on reservations in California and a handful of other states, including Wisconsin and most of Minnesota. It failed to provide adequate funding, however. 

The law left many California tribes with little or no law enforcement and negligible financial support to develop justice systems such as those formed by tribes elsewhere in the country. 

To this day, even local authorities are sometimes unclear about who is responsible for policing reservations. Many tribes have their own tribal security forces, but those officers have authority only over Indians on reservations. Many tribes are in remote corners of the state and are difficult for local law enforcement agencies to reach. 

Tribal officers can make a citizens’ arrests of suspects and turn them over to local authorities, who direct their cases to local courts. 

Supporters and opponents of the legislation alike seem to agree that something needs to be done to see that reservations and everyone on them has police protection. They disagree over how to do it. 

Some opponents of the Alarcon bill said any move to hand criminal jurisdiction of non-Indians over to tribes is a risk that just can’t be taken. 

“It is purely from my perspective a way to enhance Indian power ... and I don’t like it,” said Alan Turner, Alpine County’s district attorney. 

Because tribes are sovereign governments, non-Indians can’t sue the tribe if, for example, they are the victim of a rogue cop or are injured by an officer in an accident. 

For that matter, many patrons of tribal casinos might not know that their legal rights and potential recourse on reservations are not the same as they are off reservation. 

Supporters of the measure have offered to waive a certain amount of tribes’ sovereign immunity. Tribes that want to create fully empowered police forces would carry enough insurance to pay up to $5 million in liability coverage per incident. The bill requires a minimum of $1 million liability coverage. 

“The rest of the agencies don’t have caps,” Turner said. “This is not an acceptable thing in terms of everyone being on a level playing field.” 

Alarcon’s legislation notes other law enforcement options for tribes, such as contracting with an established police or sheriff’s department. Supporters, however, say tribes still should have the right to complete self-governance. 

Mark Nichols, the chief executive officer of the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians and the bill’s biggest supporter, said tribes have an inherent right to protect their reservations 

That means they should have the same powers and access to databases as other police officers and authority over both Indians and non-Indians, he said. 

“The notion that you would subdivide communities by race or gender and limit authority over those jurisdictions by race or gender is an untenable proposition from an ethical standpoint,” he said. 

Sgt. Ronald Karr, an officer with the Cabazon police force, said his officers need full state police powers if they are going to properly police the Southern California reservation, which is home to the Fantasy Springs casino east of Palm Springs. 

His officers haven’t been able to pursue suspects off reservation or conduct investigations off reservation. They sometimes have found themselves handicapped because they don’t have access to the state criminal database, he said. 

“People around here know our boundaries,” said Karr, a Mississippi Choctaw who is the only Indian on the force. “In the past, they’ve been able to get away.” 

Despite such arguments, the bill’s opponents see it as unnecessary and potentially dangerous. 

“The checks and balances are absent in this scenario,” said Moore, the Colorado River home owner. “I don’t understand why it’s needed.”