The botched transition that stopped Washington State Patrol rounds on Yakama Reservation roads appears near an end, four years late. Parties on all sides should follow through on agreements that will restore this important public-safety measure for tribe members and nonmembers alike.
As Seattle Times reporter Mary Hudetz reported, Yakama Nation police Lt. Jeff Chumley said a “speedway” has developed during the Patrols’ absence from the 50-mile stretch of U.S. 97 that cuts across the reservation, south of Yakima. The state officers dropped patrols there, and on about 25 other miles of reservation roads, in April 2016 amid haggling over legal liabilities between state, tribal and federal officials.
All three parties failed reservation residents and travelers by allowing this impasse to drag out so long. Settling every detail of public safety should have been of the utmost urgency from the moment the Yakama petitioned in 2012 to retake court and criminal jurisdiction over reservation lands.
Yet a dispute lingered over whether the state should handle reservation crimes only when victims and suspects were not Native Americans. After a lawsuit and a shift in federal opinions, the WSP finally in December signed an agreement with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to give troopers new authority.
Under the agreement, State Patrol officers who receive federal commissions can detain Yakama Nation members if a crime is suspected; arrests and prosecution would remain tribal matters. The patrols could roll again within months, State Patrol spokesman Chris Loftis said.
The reservation was not wholly lawless without state officers patrolling its roads. The tribal police force of about 30 officers and the Yakima County Sheriff’s Department remained on duty, and the State Patrol still responded when called out. However, the diminished policing is believed to have had damaging consequences, including the deterrence factor a visible police presence brings.
From 2012-15, the WSP logged 225 crashes on reservation roads, compared to 369 from 2016-19, the years without state patrols, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported. And the Yakama Nation Tribal Council in 2018 blamed the WSP’s “refusal to actively patrol the Yakama Reservation” as a factor in a public-safety crisis.
The WSP has, belatedly, done the right thing by agreeing to send officers for the background checks and training required to get federal commissions to patrol reservation land. Because it took so long to get to this point, all parties should be watched closely to ensure further bureaucracy does not derail the public necessity of ample law enforcement any longer.