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Tribal Peace Officers Push for Greater Powers

Legislature: A bill would make them equivalent to city and county law enforcement officials. Critics say reservation forces lack training and are immune to lawsuits.


California's Native American peace officers are pressing for broader powers, saying they need more authority to handle the flood of gamblers playing in their Nevada-style casinos.

A bill in the state Senate would give some tribal police forces the same powers as county sheriffs and city police departments.

Police and county sheriffs, however, are reserving support, questioning tribal police training and pointing out that by law, tribes are shielded from lawsuits--including police brutality actions.

Critics say a potentially dangerous situation would be created if tribal police are given expanded powers, because citizens mistreated by the officers would not have the recourse they would in encounters with other police agencies.

Led by the politically influential and wealthy Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, headquartered in Riverside County, about a dozen tribes are lobbying for greater police powers, and they have significant support in the Legislature.

The prison guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., is also backing the bill by Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar).

Under current law, tribal police and county sheriff's departments have overlapping jurisdictions on reservations. The boundaries are blurred, and in some cases the murkiness has led to bad blood. In general, county sheriffs possess the full range of powers given to law enforcement--including the ability to make arrests and carry guns.

Tribe Lobbies Legislators

Tribal police, by contrast, are restricted to making citizen's arrests of anyone not belonging to their tribe and are limited to patrolling tribal lands. They are asking for broader authority to stop criminal suspects and to pursue and arrest suspects who commit offenses on tribal land and then try to flee.

"We're a step above security guards," said Cabazon tribe Police Chief Paul Hare.

Legislation moving through the Senate seeks to give some tribal police officers the same powers as other peace officers in the state.

The Cabazon Band has lobbied heavily in Sacramento to elevate the status of tribal police.

It has produced a video, featuring actor Erik Estrada, that outlines the case for enhanced tribal law enforcement. And it has backed up its public relations efforts with large campaign contributions to selected officials.

Between 1998 and the middle of last year, the Cabazons poured more than $1.3 million into various political war chests, including $280,000 to Gov. Gray Davis and $140,000 to the California Democratic Party.

Alarcon, sponsor of the new bill, received more than $33,500 in campaign contributions last year from Native American tribes. Of that, $4,500 came from the Cabazon tribe.

The senator's bill would allow tribal police to pursue and arrest suspects off the reservation. They would also be able to arrest non-tribe members for crimes committed on tribal land.

u In part, the drive for greater police power reflects the changing nature of the state's Indian lands and the activity on them. The Cabazons, for instance, operate one of the largest casinos in California, and their tribal police occasionally have clashed with the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

"Right now we have a pretty good relationship with the Sheriff's Department," said Mark Nichols, chief executive officer for the Cabazons. "But we have a disagreement: If we drive on the highway, their view is that we are violating California law by impersonating a police officer."

Driving on the highway is hard to avoid for Cabazon police officers because the reservation is composed of five unconnected parcels of land. As recently as 3 1/2 years ago, a tribal police officer was pulled over and arrested by a sheriff's deputy for impersonating a police officer while driving on a highway between parts of the reservation.

Riverside County Sheriff Larry Smith said his department will abide by a recent court ruling that gave the Cabazons' Police Department the right to use highways between parts of the reservation.

Though some local sheriff's agencies are finding accord with local tribal authorities, the larger question of bringing parity to tribal police remains a divisive one.

Olin Jones, director of Native American affairs in the state attorney general's office, is attempting to negotiate a compromise between the bill's backers and law enforcement associations. So far, the two sides remain warily apart.

The California State Sheriffs Assn., for instance, is withholding support for the bill until two points of contention are resolved.

One is the question of how a tribe's status as a sovereign nation would affect legal liability if, for example, police misconduct triggered a lawsuit. The sheriffs are concerned that reservations could deflect large lawsuits and counties would then become the default target.

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