Monday, September 20, 2021
Sept. 20, 2021

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Agreements to bring law and order to casino

County proposes plan to allow police to function on Cowlitz land

By , Columbian Staff Writer, and
, Columbian political reporter

As final touches are being put on the Ilani Casino Resort, slated to open April 24 on the Cowlitz Indian Reservation west of La Center, Clark County released a proposed agreement that, if approved, will permit local law enforcement to perform police functions on the tribe’s land.

On Tuesday, the county council is scheduled to vote on the agreement, which also needs approval from the Cowlitz Tribal Council, that was drafted by the civil division in the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. The reservation effectively has no police force and, without an agreement between the tribe and county, local law enforcement would not be allowed to respond to calls for service at the $510 million casino that’s being developed and managed jointly by the Cowlitz and the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office has been meeting with the Cowlitz tribe for more than a year to discuss public safety issues on the reservation, and officials are pleased with the agreement, according to John Chapman, chief criminal deputy.

“This is new for a lot of us,” said Chapman. He noted that the agreement needs to be renewed after a year, which allows it to be renegotiated.

Under the agreement, the tribe agrees to adopt the state’s criminal laws for use on the reservation, while permitting sheriff’s deputies, as well as police from other local jurisdictions, to enter the land for law enforcement purposes.

The 10-page agreement states that local law enforcement will not have authority over Cowlitz tribe members, nor any other member of a federally recognized tribe. The agreement calls on the tribe to draft a criminal code for its members.

Chapman said that local law enforcement can detain tribal members suspected of breaking the law until federal agents can take them into custody.

Representatives from some local law enforcement agencies said they’d respond to a call from the casino if called in by the county for assistance.

“If they need help, we’ll help them out,” Ridgefield Police Chief John Brooks said. “Our preference would be to have a direct agreement with the tribe.”

Until then, Ridgefield and La Center will respond to calls through the county’s mutual aid agreement. Both Brooks and La Center Police Chief Marc Denney said their respective departments won’t respond to calls at the casino until an agreement between the Cowlitz and county is reached.

Denney said part of the issue with responding to calls without the agreement is that since his department is leaving their jurisdiction and entering a sovereign nation, he doesn’t think their insurance would cover them.

The department is also thinly staffed, with two sergeants and four officers.

“There’s no reason for us to participate in any level up there other than assisting the sheriff. If the sheriff calls, we will assist them,” Denney said.

The tribe will also pay the county back for law enforcement services, but that money won’t go to any city’s department that responds to a call, another reason Denney said he doesn’t expect his department to respond to too many calls unless requested by the sheriff’s department.

“It’s not all about money, but they’re a non-tax-paying entity,” he said.

The agreement requires the tribe to pay the sheriff’s office $250,000, as well as reimbursements for jail and court costs and prosecuting attorney’s services from incidents arising from the reservation. Chapman said the reimbursement rates are a “best estimate” based on costs from other Indian casinos, and the agreement means the tribe will be treated like other jursidictions when it comes to law enforcement.

That’s what Clark County Fire & Rescue has been doing with regard to the reservation. Tim Dawdy, spokesman for fire and rescue, said the tribe set up an agreement for fire and emergency services about a year ago.

“We consider the tribe another customer, another partner, like any other business in the community,” he said. “It’s just a great big business.”

Dawdy said fire and rescue crews have toured the casino grounds three times, once when the building was a skeleton, once when it was about halfway done with the work and once about a week and a half ago.

Local law enforcement agencies have also been up to the casino multiple times in recent months to meet with casino officials and the casino’s security team, which is made up of about 100 experienced officers, according to Jim Dougherty, assistant general manager.

Councilor Julie Olson, as well as other councilors, said she supports the agreement. But she said no one knows how many calls for service the casino will generate, and other unforeseen issues could arise. She said parts of the agreement may need to be renegotiated when it comes up for renewal after a year.

There are other issues the agreement doesn’t cover. Council Chair Marc Boldt pointed out that it doesn’t cover the medical examiner, who wouldn’t be permitted to enter the reservation to investigate a death. He also said that the mayor of La Center expressed concerns that the city will see more drunken drivers that will mean more costs for the city.

Previously, the county’s opposition to the casino was so strong that it went as far as to bar staff from discussing the project with the tribe. However, the council later removed these restrictions.

Dr. Alan Melnick, public health director and Clark County health officer, said that his department has been in contact with the tribe regarding its wastewater treatment system, which has raised concerns that it could pollute the aquifer.

“State laws around septic systems and wastewater do not apply to the tribe,” he said. “They are working under Environmental Protection Agency regulations.”

But he said the tribe has been “agreeable” to the idea of allowing his department to look at data to see what levels of nitrates, bacteria and turbidity are in the effluent. He also said his department has been in contact about food handling at its restaurants, which must meet federal requirements. Dougherty said the casino is in negotiations with an outside company to perform inspections.

Columbian Staff Writer
Columbian political reporter