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Tribal Police Seek More Computer Access

February 16, 2005

CABAZON INDIAN RESERVATION, Calif. (AP) _ Cabazon police Sgt. Ronald Karr can arrest people, carry weapons and respond to emergencies in a patrol car equipped with a wailing siren and flashing lights. But what Karr and every other American Indian tribal police officer in California cannot do is tap into state and federal law enforcement databases to check for criminal records and outstanding warrants on the people they stop.

Many other states open their criminal databases to all law enforcement agencies, although some place added requirements on tribal police.

Without that access, tribal officers say they can have trouble gathering such basic information as a person’s home address.

``You don’t know whether someone has just robbed a bank or escaped from jail,″ said Karr, 52, as he patrolled the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians reservation in Riverside County, about 90 miles east of Los Angeles. ``Without that kind of information, you’re really in the dark.″

State officials say they fear the tribal officers could not be held accountable if the information were misused.

``Tribes are sovereign, not bound by state law,″ said California attorney general spokesman Nathan Barankin. ``So unless the tribe is willing to waive its sovereignty in some way or a state or local government agency wants to assume accountability on behalf of that tribe, there’s no way to make a tribe bound by California law.″

The California Tribal Police Chiefs Association, which filed a lawsuit last May against the state in Riverside County Superior Court to get access to the information, says discrimination lies behind the ban.

``The potential for abuse exists everywhere, not just on reservations,″ said Michael Meese, police chief for the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians in Northern California.

Tribal officials say public safety is becoming increasingly important on reservations because the booming gambling industry has drawn more people to American Indian-run casinos.

``In order to do our job effectively we have to have the tools,″ said Stan Kephart, police chief of the Cabazon tribe and a member of the Tribal Police Chiefs Association.

The California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, which is controlled by the state attorney general’s office, provides authorities with data on state residents, including their driving records, criminal history and outstanding arrest warrants. It also provides a gateway to a nationwide database.

State law limits access to ``sworn peace officers″ employed by cities, counties and federal agencies. It makes no provision for officers working on American Indian reservations.

``Tribes do have their hands tied,″ said Mike Smith, interim director for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In Montana, tribal police must be certified to receive access and must complete special training, said Assistant Attorney General Sarah Bond.

In Wisconsin, where tribes are also given access, the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians gets its information directly from the local sheriff’s department, said tribal Police Chief Kathryn Makowski.

California tribes are allowed to make similar arrangements, but tribal officials say most county sheriff’s departments are unwilling to cooperate. Only the Hoopa Valley Indian Tribe in Northern California has such an agreement, with the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department.

``The procedures and the way people operate should be the same if you’re going to be a police officer,″ said Tom McMains, the California Peace Officers Association’s treasurer. ``The biggest issue is the fact that they’re operating outside the same rules as everyone.″

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