Despite the threat of arrest and possible closure of their casino, leaders of the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians said Wednesday that they would continue stopping law enforcement officers at the gates of their reservation unless they were responding to an emergency.
The move sets up a possible confrontation with Riverside County sheriff’s deputies who have shot and killed four tribal members in altercations and gunfights since December.
“We hope it doesn’t hit a crisis point, but I am fairly certain it will,” said Chief Deputy Jim Domenoe. “We are going to be reasonable about this, but if they cause us significant delay, that could be grounds for arrest.”
The policy prompted Sheriff Stanley Sniff on Monday to ask the National Indian Gaming Commission to close the casino out of concern for public safety.
Tribal Chairman Robert Salgado and his council held a news conference Wednesday at which they said they were within their legal rights to require deputies to state their business before entering the reservation. They said no routine patrolling would be allowed and that doing so would be trespassing.
“It’s just like when you enter a military base,” said Salgado, who has been chairman for more than 30 years. “If they say they have a warrant, then we will take them to the place. We want to make sure they get the right house.”
He said tribal security guards at the front gate ask deputies what they are doing and where they are going. In five recent cases, he said, security escorted officers to the suspects’ homes. But authorities fear this could tip off criminals.
“It has happened before. There have been calls made that have allowed people to get a head start,” Domenoe said. “Or what happens if they make a call and then get the drop on us? We often need the element of surprise, and the unfortunate reality is we have had a lot of violent encounters there.”
Indeed, three tribal members were killed in May after engaging deputies in running gun battles using assault rifles. In one case, officers said, someone fired at a Sheriff’s Department helicopter overhead.
After the incidents, a series of closed-door meetings were held among officials of law enforcement, the federal government and the tribes in an effort to reach a sort of peace deal. An agreement was signed two weeks ago but appears to be unraveling.
Salgado repeatedly brought up historical injustices Wednesday, saying that “this is 2008, not 1800, when the cavalry came in and took our women and kids and massacred them.” He said that despite signing a deal with the sheriff, “it is white man speaking with forked tongue” again.
The chairman, 65, says deputies have no right to be on the reservation’s non-county roads. And the main thoroughfare in and out of Soboba is private, he said. His views are based on his understanding of federal Public Law 280, which gives state authorities the right to enforce law on Indian land.
“We are not trying to be above the law, but Public Law 280 is also the law,” Salgado said. “We are not tearing down the agreement. We will mend the bridge if it is broken.”
Jim Fletcher, Southern California superintendent of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, said the agency’s lawyer would make a legal determination as to whether deputies can legally use the road.
Sniff said the law clearly allows it. He also presented to the county Board of Supervisors statistics showing that in 2007 violent crime on the 500-person reservation was more than three times greater per capita than in neighboring Hemet and San Jacinto.
Salgado, who disputes the numbers, said the casino was safe and that more than 7,000 people attended a recent musical performance. He invited Sniff to an Aug. 11 forum on Public Law 280. Sniff said he understood the law and wasn’t coming.
“If he doesn’t come,” Salgado said, “that will show his true colors.”