Tribes seek more law enforcement authority. Many back a proposal to put their officers on the same footing as sheriff's and city police officers.

By Steve Moore and Mark Henry © 11/28/00
The Press-Enterprise  -

Tribal police cannot enforce state law on reservations because tribal officers are not certified California peace officers.

They can only detain lawbreakers and then wait for a sheriff's deputy or city police officer to arrive and make the arrest.

But all that could change under proposed legislation.

If enacted, the new law would allow tribal officers to handle crime on Indian land and requests for help from other law enforcement agencies in California, according to the Coalition for Enhanced Tribal Law Enforcement.

Population growth, economic development and a lack of law enforcement on Indian land make the legislation necessary, supporters say.

The Tribal-State Law Enforcement Cooperation Act of 2001 is expected to be introduced early next year, supporters say. Sponsors are state Sens. Richard Alarcon, D-San Fernando, and John Burton, D-San Francisco.

State and county law enforcement officials say the proposed legislation would give tribal officers full peace officer status -- on and off the reservation -- in California.

On Monday, about 500 top law enforcement officials, tribal police commanders, prosecutors and politicians discussed the proposed legislation at a three-day conference in Rancho Mirage. A statewide sheriffs association is working on its own legislation involving tribal police departments. It could be introduced in January or February, officials added.

Many attending the Tribal and State Law Enforcement Summit 2000 believe the tribal coalition will gain more law enforcement power.

"Absolutely, there's no question in my mind," Les Weidman, president of the California State Sheriffs Asssociation.

Some worry that tribal sovereignty will interfere with suspects' constitutional rights and their ability to file lawsuits over police brutality. Many want an arm's-length relationship between tribal police and Indian casinos. Because of sovereignty, Indian nations must grant permission to be sued.

The Cabazons' professionally trained Public Safety Department is up to the task, said Mark Nichols chief executive officer of the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians near Indio.

The department has 28 tribal police officers certified by the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, he said. Indian casinos have security needs just like other businesses that depend on law enforcement, Nichols said.

The proposed legislation requires tribal law enforcement agencies to carry at least $1 million in liability insurance. It requires tribal officers to be trained like other police officers in California under the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training.

As fully certified law enforcement agencies, tribal police would have full arrest powers, could leave the reservation to pursue investigations and would gain access to rap sheet information and other sensitive criminal investigation material, according to state and county law enforcement officials.

The proposed legislation is supported by about 70 of the 107 federally recognized tribes in California, according to a major backer, the Cabazon Indians.

Law enforcement agencies, including the Riverside County and the San Bernardino County sheriff's departments, are not taking a position yet on the new legislation.

Attorney General Bill Lockyer, the state's top law enforcement officer, said he would like to see tribal departments trained just like other police departments and given similar authority.

Staff writer Mark Henry contributed to this report.