October 24, 2014

Human rights group calls for tribal arrest power

BOISE, Idaho (AP) – A northern Idaho human rights group says a county sheriff is refusing to cooperate with the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe on law enforcement, leading to a growing number of criminals being released without prosecution.

The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations on Thursday called for the Idaho Legislature to pass a bill that will let Idaho tribal police officers arrest non-tribal members who violate state law on the reservation.

The proposal, due to be introduced next week at the Capitol, would require those arrested by tribal police to be tried in state court. Tribal officers would have to be certified by the state police academy near Boise, as Coeur d’Alene tribal officers are now. Other tribes, including Shoshone-Bannock and Shoshone-Paiute tribes in southern Idaho, wouldn’t be forced to participate.

Christie Wood, a task force leader, wrote in an open letter to Idaho lawmakers Thursday that Benewah County Sheriff Bob Kirts refuses to respond to tribal calls for help with reservation crimes and won’t reinstate a cross-deputization agreement with tribal police. Without such a pact, Coeur d’Alene tribal police can’t currently arrest non-tribal members on Indian territory.

“The failure of Sheriff Kirts to work with the Tribal Police has left citizens in bedlam,” Wood wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Associated Press. “Perpetrators have been set free that have committed serious criminal offenses against citizens living in Benewah County.”

The tribe contends the county’s conduct results in at least 90 non-Indians every month who are suspected of crimes from domestic violence and drunken driving to serious criminal assaults being freed without prosecution.

Kirts said the tribe’s account – and the letter to lawmakers – are inaccurate and misleading.

“I think somebody is feeding them a line of fecal matter,” he told the AP, adding the tribe is trying to pressure his agency. “They came to me and said, ‘If you deputize us, we will not put the law through the Legislature. To me, that’s a threat. I said, ‘Let’s go.”’

The Coeur d’Alene reservation’s checkerboard property ownership – its 10,000 residents include about 8,600 nonmembers – means 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.

“This agreement has worked remarkably well to protect citizens from criminal activity,” the task force wrote.

A similar pact with Benewah County collapsed in January 2007, in part due to a dispute over tribal authorities’ power to handle some minor offenses.

The two sides have different versions of what happened.

“They started to cite non-tribal members in tribal court, saying ‘If you take care of this here, there will be no record on your license,”’ Kirts told the AP.

Helo Hancock, the tribe’s attorney and legislative director, conceded there were fundamental disagreements between Benewah County and the tribe over its authority to cite a non-tribal member for a civil infraction. But he maintained that’s within the tribe’s purview, but said tribal officials have offered Kirts an olive branch: They would discontinue the practice if he would uphold the cross-deputization pact.

Kirts has rebuffed offers to reinstate the agreement, Hancock said, leaving the tribe no other choice but to go to the Idaho Legislature for help.

“We have a growing problem that requires a reasonable solution,” he said. “When Benewah County deputies are unable or unwilling to respond, it means we have to turn perpetrators loose, simply because we don’t have the authority to make an arrest.”

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