In Humboldt County, tribe pushes for bigger law enforcement role on its lands

Ryan Jackson, Hoopa Valley tribal chairman, speaks at a meeting with Humboldt County sheriff's officials, including Sheriff Mike Downey, second from right. The tribal council has approved a $1.7-million law enforcement budget for 2016 — a nearly $500,000 increase over last year. The tribe is also pursuing other avenues to gain greater law enforcement authority on their lands.
Ryan Jackson, Hoopa Valley tribal chairman, speaks at a meeting with Humboldt County sheriff’s officials, including Sheriff Mike Downey, second from right. The tribal council has approved a $1.7-million law enforcement budget for 2016 — a nearly $500,000 increase over last year. The tribe is also pursuing other avenues to gain greater law enforcement authority on their lands.
(Lee Romney / Los Angeles Times)

In calls to tribal police and Humboldt County sheriff’s dispatch last March, Judy Surber cried, begged and threatened.

Her 29-year-old son had been shot in the chest and head in a small trailer on the remote Hoopa Valley reservation where he, his girlfriend and their 7-month-old son had stopped to give a friend a ride.

Roger Surber lay bleeding next to a 73-year-old man with an even graver head wound. Surber’s girlfriend ran, clutching the baby, to find a phone.

When Judy Surber got the news, she placed her first emergency calls.


The tribal force, down to just one active officer, had no one to send. As Surber and her family raced to the scene, she was stunned to see a California Highway Patrol officer and sheriff’s deputy in their idled cars on the highway — on orders, they told her, to await more sheriff’s backup before going in or letting other emergency personnel through.

In a county that exceeds 4,000 square miles, that backup took time to arrive.

For an hour and 40 minutes, Judy Surber estimates, her family was alone in the bloody trailer. A daughter-in-law who was once a medic worked to keep Roger alive. (He survived; the older man died.) A son repeatedly ran to the staging area to tell the deputy that the suspects were gone. Surber kept calling the dispatch centers, screaming that the scene was safe.

“The minutes felt like hours,” the 53-year-old executive secretary for the tribal council said. “Without our tribal police, we’re pretty much at the mercy of whoever is available — and sometimes that’s nobody.”


Surber’s panic played out at a time of crisis for public safety on tribal lands.

A federal law decades ago shifted the primary burden of criminal law enforcement on tribal lands in California and five other states to local authorities. Many lack the resources to do the job and, in some cases, sufficient knowledge of tribal law and culture to win the trust of tribal members. Tribes were cut off from steady funding for their own justice systems. Crime has flourished.

Last month, Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey dissolved a 20-year-old agreement authorizing Hoopa Valley tribal police to help enforce state criminal law, saying the tribal force’s reduced manpower made it “untenable.”

The word “police” has been stripped from tribal vehicles, replaced with “security” after Downey warned that taking the cars off the 144-square-mile reservation otherwise could lead to charges of impersonating a peace officer.


Tribal leaders said the move offends their sovereignty and will curtail their ability to rebuild their own force.

“We’re miles apart,” tribal Chairman Ryan Jackson said of negotiations with Downey at a community meeting this month.

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The situation arises from Public Law 280, a measure approved 62 years ago that is among a series of policies aimed at forcing Native Americans to assimilate. It compelled states where tribal lands were deemed “lawless” to take responsibility for enforcing state law. The federal government continued to fill that role in the other states.


The six states couldn’t tax tribal lands held in trust to cover their costs. The tribes were cut off from Bureau of Indian Affairs funding that flows to tribal police and tribal courts in the rest of the country.

Tribes could still enforce their own civil and criminal laws on tribal members. But the constant scramble to “cobble together various pots of funding” to maintain those justice systems has made it tough, Jackson said, particularly for remote tribes without access to ample casino revenue.

The federal Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 — and the independent Indian Law and Order Commission it empowered — laid out fixes to give tribes greater say in tailoring their own justice programs.

In its 2013 report to President Obama and Congress, the commission called the approach to criminal jurisdiction nationwide — but particularly under Public Law 280 — “an indefensible maze of complex, conflicting, and illogical commands, layered over decades via congressional policies and court decisions, and without the consent of tribal nations.”


It recommended that tribes in so-called P.L. 280 states be allowed to opt out of state jurisdiction altogether — with or without state consent.

The Hoopa Valley tribe had worked out a solution held up as a model. But Downey told the crowded meeting in Hoopa that it was simply no longer working.

Thanks to a county ballot measure that reversed four years of “heavy duty budget decline,” Downey this month assigned three full-time deputies to the region in hopes of “getting back to the business of law enforcement — high visibility and responding to calls for service.”

The presence had already led to arrests, among them robbery suspects found with drugs and outstanding warrants at the Hoopa shopping center, he said Friday.


Downey has said he remains open to a renewed agreement with the tribe if at least four tribal officers pass his background checks and field training, share a dispatch and reporting system, and — most controversially — answer to his command staff.

But trust is lacking.

“I think the sheriff is acting in very poor faith … and even crippling the safety of this community further,” said Richard C. Blake, the tribe’s chief judge. “Tribal police and tribal court issues are not going to go away, and instead of trying to jockey for authority, true agreements need to be reached.”

Blake is concerned that deputies won’t make arrests when domestic violence protective orders issued by his court are violated. Downey said his department will continue to honor those orders.


Jackson, the recently elected chairman, has moved to beef up the force. Last week, the tribal council approved a $1.7-million law enforcement budget for 2016 — a nearly $500,000 increase over this year — which is expected to boost salaries and pay for a chief, lieutenant, three sergeants and nine officers. Five officers are expected to graduate soon from a state-certified training academy.

The tribe is also pursuing other avenues to gain greater law enforcement authority on their lands, even if Downey declines to re-up the agreement.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has agreed to train and deputize Hoopa Valley officers to enforce certain federal laws. And Hoopa Valley is among three California tribes that have applied under the 2010 law for the federal government to share responsibilities for such enforcement. That would pass more tribal cases off to federal prosecutors.

Feelings are mixed. Mary Jane Aubrey, who manages the tribe’s Tsewenaldin Inn, said running a business here is “really hard” because of loitering, drug use, panhandling and theft. She wants improvements but said that as outsiders, sheriff’s deputies “don’t care about our people.”


“Our tribal police are ours,” she said. “They know who’s on drugs, who’s lying to them, which families are good, which families are bad.”

At the recent community meeting, tribal members spoke of calling tribal dispatch, only to be told to call the sheriff, and then be told by sheriff’s dispatch to call the tribal police. They recounted uninvestigated crimes, and stressed the need for quick response to family violence.

Pamela Risling, who directs the tribe’s domestic violence and sexual assault program, voiced support for the training and discipline that Downey has called for. She said the tribe and the sheriff need to work together, considering he has the legal mandate to call the shots.

“We deserve the same service as people in Eureka,” she said. “Whether or not we like it, we are a P.L. 280 state.”


Surber is conflicted. The night she brought her son home from the hospital, someone fired shots at the house, she said, and it took a deputy more than two hours to arrive.

“As a tribal member, I don’t like to see the county pull the agreement, because of our sovereignty,” she said. “As a community member, I just want someone to respond.”

Twitter: @leeromney



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