ADA, Okla. (AP) – Signs usually tell travelers when they’re crossing into tribal territory in Oklahoma, but law enforcement officials say criminals don’t recognize such boundaries.
In December, a man who was angry and depressed fired a gun at a Chickasaw Nation truck plaza, hitting a plate-glass window and gasoline pumps.
The crime occurred on tribal land, but the nearest tribal officer was in the next county. It was Ada police officer Jeff Hargraves who arrived in minutes, turned out the lights and got everyone on the floor in case the shooting resumed. The case was then turned over to tribal police and the BIA.
Because of a cross-deputization agreement between Ada and tribal police, Hargraves was able to respond to the scene more quickly and officials avoided a problem.
”The criminals don’t recognize jurisdictional boundaries. Law enforcement has to. The only way for us to combat that is to cross-deputize,” said Jason O’Neal, chief of the Chickasaw’s three-year-old Lighthorse Police Department.
O’Neal’s department has 28 cross-deputization agreements in the 13-county, 8,000-square-mile area where Chickasaws hold land. The most recent was signed May 24 at the state Capitol between the tribe and the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control.
”A lot of criminal drug activity takes place on tribal land. We’re able to work with them to basically stem the tide of those who try to escape prosecution,” said Mark Woodward, the agency’s spokesman.
According to records filed with the Oklahoma Secretary of State, 13 tribes, 32 counties, 80 cities, six district attorneys, three colleges and eight state agencies have had current or former cross-deputization agreements since 1991.
Many of those agreements are with the BIA, but increasingly, they involve the 22 tribal police departments in Oklahoma, said Jim Cox, director of the Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police.
A uniform agreement signed last year by the BIA and the state has meant that cities and counties only need to sign simple addendums to cross-deputize tribal police.
John Richter, U.S. attorney for Oklahoma’s Western District, believes the standardized form provides a degree of comfort to law enforcement agencies that historically have not worked together.
”There’s obviously a historic mistrust and misunderstanding that exists out there,” Richter said.
The next step is to bring more law enforcement agencies on board, he said.
”Our goal is to have an agreement with every tribe and the major law enforcement agencies,” he said.
Pontotoc County Sheriff Pete Peterson has 10 deputies patrolling 780 square miles. For Peterson, a cross-deputization agreement he signed with the 30-officer Lighthorse Police means a quadrupling of his manpower.
”If you have a manpower shortage, this is just extra help – free help,” he said.
His deputies may be asked to respond to calls on Chickasaw tribal land, but just as often, he seeks help from the Lighthorse Police.
”A judge will call and need someone brought up from the jail. It’s no big deal, but I don’t have an officer available. I’ll call Lighthorse. It’s just like they’re my people and my people are his,” Peterson said.
Even experts use cheat-sheets and charts to determine whether the state, tribe or federal government has jurisdiction when a crime occurs on Indian land. Law enforcement officers in the field have to make snap decisions and sometimes get it wrong.
Tribes and the federal government share jurisdiction for most crimes in Indian country, which in Oklahoma is primarily trust land allotted to tribes or individual Indians.
But property status changes daily as allotment holders buy and sell land. For example, if someone wants to build a house on a 40-acre allotment, an acre has to be taken out of trust in order to get a mortgage.
”You respond to a call and if the incident occurred in the house, it’s state jurisdiction. If it happened in the driveway, it’s tribal jurisdiction. So it does become very complicated,” O’Neal said.
Cross-deputization agreements end jurisdiction debates and result in a more seamless response to the public, Richter said.
”What you’re looking for is to have an officer at the scene to stop the situation. Then you can sort it out,” he said.
O’Neal said he’s heard many reasons why some agencies balk at sharing jurisdiction with tribal police.
”I’ve had remarks about the tribe’s administration. I’ve had racist type of remarks. I’ve had sheriffs say they were worried they’d have a rogue tribal officer running amok in the county,” he said.
Richter said the problem is a lack of trust, and he hopes that can change by bringing tribal and nontribal police together for training on jurisdiction issues.