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News / Clark County News

Cowlitz Indian Tribe seeks to expand its police force, hopes law proposed by Cantwell will help

Agency has 17 officers, would like to hire six more

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: May 29, 2024, 5:22pm

A shortage of police officers means the Cowlitz Indian Tribal Public Safety Department is struggling to keep up with an increase in calls since the pandemic began, officials say.

Normally, the department has two officers on duty at a given time to patrol its service area, which stretches from the 152-acre reservation near La Center, where the tribe’s ilani casino is located, to Toledo. Its officers also provide law enforcement assistance in La Center and Ridgefield and for incidents on Interstate 5.

Although the number of officers has grown in recent years to 17, another three positions remain open. Ideally, the department would hire six more officers to keep up with increased call volume, Cowlitz Public Safety Director Jon Pound said. The number of calls between 2020 and 2023 rose by 39 percent, he said, largely due to a return to normal operations after the pandemic.

“While the Public Safety Department is proud of its record and reputation for upholding public safety, covering these vast responsibilities with an officer shortage can leave our resources stretched thin,” Pound said in an email.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell’s Parity for Tribal Law Enforcement Act may provide some relief. It would provide tribal law enforcement officers access to similar benefits received by law enforcement officers from nontribal jurisdictions, including federal retirement, pension, death and injury benefits.

“Many tribes do not have enough law enforcement to tackle these big problems like fentanyl or murdered and missing Indigenous people,” Cantwell told federal officials last week.

Although the Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on the policy a month ago, it’s made little progress through Congress.

Pound said the tribe testified before the House Interior Appropriations Committee about the need for additional public safety funding. He said Cantwell’s policy has the potential to help every tribe in Washington.

“Currently, state and federal law enforcement can provide retirement and other types of compensation benefits that tribes can’t provide to law enforcement, and so this disparity means even though tribes have been trying to keep up, we’ve had a great deal of problem in keeping the commissioned officers,” said Cantwell, D-Wash.

The Cowlitz department hasn’t had to sacrifice any programs or initiatives due to staffing shortages, Pound said, but additional officers and resources would allow the tribe to be more responsive to calls.