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Tribal Peace Officers bill passes into law

SUQUAMISH —

Until now, a 30-year-old case law (1978 Oliphant vs. Suquamish) placed a choke-hold on tribal officers by denying jurisdiction over non-tribal members committing crimes on reservations.

But on March 28, Gov. Christine Gregoire signed the Tribal Peace Officers bill into law, granting tribal officers authority to enforce state law, including arrests, on non-tribal members within tribal jurisdiction. The bill signing was a major victory for Suquamish Tribal Police Chief Mike Lasnier, who spent 10 years writing and advocating the bill.

The old case law made it especially difficult for tribal police like those working in Suquamish because not all residents on the reservations are Native Americans.

Washington adds to the short list of states Arizona, Oklahoma and Kansas, which passed similar laws.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, on a national average, Native Americans experience one violent crime for every 10 residents age 12 and older. For Native Americans between the age of 25 to 34, the rate of violent crime victimizations was more than two and a half times the rate for all people the same age.

“Many people come on to reservations thinking they can get away with crime because they think we can’t touch them,” Lasnier said, adding the rumor is partly to blame for more organized crime taking place on reservations nationwide.

The bill saw a lot of opposition by law enforcement at first, Lasnier said.

In fact, the bill passed the House with 38 out of 39 sheriff representatives statewide opposing it.

“It was scary that we could have beat them,” Lasnier said. “But we didn’t want that. We met in the eleventh hour, made the changes to make sure concerns were addressed. We didn’t want to do it in spite of them. We are a team out on the roads and in our communities and we wanted to cross the finish line with them.”

Lasnier said he struggled primarily with the case law before he relocated to Suquamish and has multiple stories throughout Washington where the Tribal Peace Officers law might have saved lives.

One story in particular haunts his memory. It was New Year’s Eve in 1999, in South King County. Lasnier pulled over a reckless drunken driver in, what he called, “Indian Country.” Lasnier could do nothing besides wait with the non-native man for a non-tribal law enforcement officer to arrive.

He called dispatch but all other units were tied up for eight to 10 hours. By that time the man would be sober again.

With the new law, Lasnier could have tested the man’s blood-alcohol level and arrested him. However, the law didn’t come soon enough. Three years later, that same drunken driver Lasnier had pulled over in 1999 killed three pedestrians who were walking in a crosswalk.

“If I had been able to take him in the first time, have him sentenced and put into treatment, I believe those three people would still be alive today,” Lasnier said.

The new law is not required to be adopted by all Native American Tribes in Washington state. However, tribes wishing to use it are required to work out a memorandum of understanding with other local law enforcement entities.

Kitsap County Sheriff Deputy Scott Wilson said Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) will meet April 15 concerning a model template for the memorandum of understanding.

The law ensures tribal police can “enforce Washington State law more efficiently,” Lasnier said. “Tying up two cops to do the duty of one is stupid and a waste of resources. We don’t want to pull a deputy off the road on a Friday night just to write a stupid traffic ticket.”

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