A lawyer for the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians has accused the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department of inadequate training and negligence and of killing a tribal member partly because of his ethnicity.
Attorney Jack Schwartz recently filed a tort claim notice with the county Board of Supervisors and vowed to follow up with a federal lawsuit if the panel ignored or denied the claim.
Schwartz is representing the family of Gordon Davis Arres, who died after being shot by deputies in December. He is one of five Soboba members killed in altercations or gunfights with law enforcement in a six-month period.
The resulting tensions led to a series of closed-door meetings between officials and tribal leaders. Two weeks ago, Sheriff Stanley Sniff and Tribal Chairman Robert Salgado signed a deal to increase cooperation between the two sides.
But that hasn’t stopped the victims’ relatives from taking legal action.
“The families have a right to do what they got to do, and I can’t comment on it,” Salgado said. “I can only comment on tribal business.”
A spokesman for Riverside County referred questions to the Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff’s officials said they could not comment on pending litigation.
Arres, 26, was shot Dec. 28 after his vehicle was stopped by deputies in Hemet. Authorities said Arres ran from the deputies, who shot him after he pulled a gun from his waistband.
Deputies said they recovered a loaded Browning 9-mm semi-automatic handgun from the scene.
Schwartz said Arres was unarmed.
The veteran Indian civil rights attorney said four other Soboba families may also sue.
Schwartz’s claim charges the Sheriff’s Department with wrongful death, battery, negligence, negligent supervision, infliction of emotional distress, and death due in part to ethnicity. He has not yet asked for monetary damages.
“The wrongful death is partially a result of a failure to supervise and train deputies properly and partially because [Arres] was an Indian,” Schwartz said. “If they are doing these kinds of shootings, the problem is institutional as well as individual.”
The Sheriff’s Department has defended its actions. Officials repeatedly have said that the reservation near San Jacinto suffers from serious crime problems and that tribal members have used assault rifles to shoot at deputies.
Under the new agreement between the sheriff and the tribal chairman, deputies will coordinate closely with tribal leaders when conducting investigations, entering the reservation in response to 911 calls and when pursuing suspects. There will be little if any routine patrolling.
Still, Sniff has made a point of saying that he has the legal right to enforce local law on the reservation and plans to continue doing so.
In a related development, the tribe announced Thursday that on Aug. 11 it will sponsor a public forum on Public Law 280, the federal law giving California authorities the right to patrol Indian land. The complicated measure has led to confusion and friction between tribes and law enforcement. Legal experts and local, state and federal officials are expected to attend the meeting at the Country Club at Soboba Springs.