Until recently, tribal police officers in Oregon did not have the authority to enforce Oregon laws.
On July 28, 2011, Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a bill that changes the definition of "police officer" to hinge on training rather than the personal judgments of local sheriffs. Under the new law, reservation police can have the same authority as other Oregon police.
Supporters of the law say criminals will find fewer loopholes between the jurisdiction of tribal and state police over on and off-reservation crimes and quicker response times while opponents say it will inspire costly litigation and cannot guarantee the protection of basic legal rights.
Six of Oregon's nine reservations fall under a 1953 federal law that gives Oregon police authority on tribal lands, concurrently with the tribal governments. The other three tribes — Warm Springs, Umatilla, and Burns Paiute — have their own police.
In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that tribal governemnts have no authority to prosecute non-Indians. This loophole tattered the net of law enforcement on and near reservations. The three tribes turned to Oregon sheriffs to fill the gap by deputizing tribal police as county officers. Some agreed and some didn't. The continuity of law enforcement depended on the discretion of each new sheriff.
The Portland Oregonian writes: "Without deputizing tribal officers with the county, Warm Springs officers were unable to follow suspects off-reservation or arrest non-tribal members on reservation. Jefferson County officers couldn't know if their supervisors would allow Warm Springs officers to respond to calls near the reservation border or back them up on dangerous calls when just one officer was on night duty. Both jurisdictions lost access to the other department's intelligence about criminals hopscotching the boundary with drugs or outstanding warrants.
The invisible border is a very real jurisdictional wall."
Polk County Sheriff Bob Wolfe and the Oregon State Sheriffs Association argue the law presents a danger of its own and Wolfe says it makes tribal police the most powerful law enforcement agency in the state without any equal guarantees of civil protections.
"They're a sovereign nation and they are saying they can play by a different set of rules. I personally don't understand that," Wolfe says. He wants all state-certified officers to work under the same rules.
It's an unavoidable paradox, says Howard Arnett, lawyer for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
"All tribes zealously guard their sovereignty because it stems from pre-Constitution days," Arnett says.
It is also unlikely today's Congress will change federal law and treaties to weaken tribal police powers, he says.