Soboba Indians, Riverside County Sheriff reach agreement

Soboba Indians, Riverside County Sheriff reach agreement
Riverside County Sheriff Stanley Sniff, left, and Robert Salgado, chairman of the Soboba Tribal Council, raise their glasses for a toast Monday. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
After weeks of closed-door negotiations, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department and the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians signed a deal Monday aimed at improving the way they communicate and reducing tension on a reservation where three tribal members died in recent gun battles with deputies.

The five-page agreement, signed by Sheriff Stanley Sniff and Tribal Chairman Robert Salgado, calls for regular meetings between deputies and Soboba leaders, for cultural awareness training for deputies and for the Sheriff's Department to keep key tribal leaders informed of potential investigations.

Sniff said deputies would continue to enter the 6,000-acre reservation for 911 calls and in "hot pursuit" cases, but said they would engage in little, if any, routine patrolling.

He said he maintained his right to enforce state law on the reservation, but would try to give tribal liaisons as much advance notice as possible, as long as it didn't jeopardize officers' lives or reduce tactical surprise.

"It's more of a first step now," Sniff said at a news conference following the signing.

Salgado, who wore a black pinstriped suit and clutched a ceremonial eagle feather, praised Sniff for helping to arrive at the deal but said disagreements remained, especially in the complicated area of Indian sovereignty.

The chairman doesn't believe deputies have a right to drive along non-county roads on the reservation, which would include its main thoroughfare.

"My interpretation is different from the sheriff's," Salgado said. "As long as the roads are not public, the deputies can't go on them."

Sniff said that Public Law 280 gives local authorities in California the power to enforce state law on reservations.

"Investigations of murder or assault are done irrespective of it being a public road," he said.

Tensions between the Soboba band and law enforcement have been building for years. In 2005, the department signed a five-year contract with the tribe to patrol the reservation, but Salgado canceled it a year later, saying he wasn't happy with how deputies were doing their job.

Some officials and law enforcement officers say the deal was torpedoed because deputies arrested several family members of prominent tribal leaders. Salgado denied this, saying he never shielded any members from the law.

Over the years, officers told of being shot at on the reservation and of recovering caches of weapons, stolen cars and drugs. In May, deputies were involved in two firefights with tribal members toting assault rifles.

Eli Morillo, 26, died in one shootout. He was the son of former tribal chairwoman Rosemary Morillo. Another of her sons, Peter Morillo, 27, had been fatally shot in a 2002 confrontation with officers.

Also killed in May were tribal members Joseph Arres, 36, and Tamara Hurtado, 29, who were Salgado's cousins. During that incident, deputies shut down the main road into the reservation, forcing some members, including Salgado, to spend the night inside cars in the Soboba Casino parking lot. The next day, an incensed Salgado said his tribe was "at war" with authorities. He hired an attorney to investigate whether any civil rights had been violated.

Since then, the two sides have met almost every week at the Country Club at Soboba Springs, just down the road from the casino. They've been joined by a mediator from the U.S. Justice Department and officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"We as law enforcement need to know more about the cultural history of the Soboba," said Lt. Patty Knudson, a sheriff's deputy who has been part of the negotiating team. "They need to learn more about law enforcement and why we do the things we do."

Both sides agreed to develop a training course on the history, customs and characteristics of the Soboba reservation. They said it would also address stereotypes. Salgado has complained in the past that some deputies treat innocent tribal members like criminals.

Officers also will train the tribal council on crime prevention, presenting seminars on subjects such as what tribal members should do if stopped by law enforcement. They will also look into getting federal law enforcement certification for tribal security officers.

Joint exercises will be held to learn how best to deploy resources during an emergency. In the event of another major crime, the agreement calls for a tribal command post to be set up to communicate with deputies on the scene.

Agreement in hand, Salgado said the state of war he once described between the tribe and law enforcement is over, but some battles continue.

"We would like people to know that we are good people here," he said. "There will always be tensions, but if they will meet us halfway, we will meet them halfway."