By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) Police Commission met for its regular monthly meeting on Thursday, Sept. 16 in a conference room of the Ginger Lynn Welch complex. The meeting convened at approximately noon and lasted three and a half hours, including what amounted to a closed session (Chairman Tunney Crowe asked the One Feather to step out of the meeting room for a period that lasted 35 minutes). No formal motions for closing the meeting were made, the topic of discussion was not revealed, and no report was offered at the conclusion of the closed session.
The meeting content may be characterized as a discussion of past miscommunication or lack of communication between the different areas of leadership within law enforcement. The discussion included the Police Commission, the Chief of Police, Probation Officers, the Office of the Tribal Prosecutor, the Attorney General’s office and Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed. Commissioners in attendance were Chairperson Tunney Crowe, Vice Chairperson Buddy Johnson, Secretary Anita Lossiah, Lisa Taylor, Solomon “Slick” Saunooke, Hillary Norville, and Frank Dunn. According to the Secretary, Commissioner Kym Parker was attempting to connect via electronic media, but there was no interaction during the meeting. Secretary Lossiah acknowledged that the Commission had a quorum so that the meeting could proceed. Also, in attendance for the full meeting, including the closed session, were Police Chief Josh Taylor, Tribal Prosecutor Cody White, Tribal Prosecutor Shelli Buckner, and Chris Siewers Jr. from the Attorney General’s office.
As the meeting began, Buddy Johnson had questions regarding the current police department policies and procedures. Police Chief Taylor made a distinction between personnel policy and operational procedure. He said that he is committed to the police department adhering to the Tribal Human Resources personnel policy to which every tribal employee is accountable. Regarding operational policies and procedures, Taylor said that he is reviewing and updating existing policies based on expert input from multiple sources, including neighboring county sheriffs. He also said that he is also getting support from the Tribal Prosecutor’s office, who he said was an invaluable resource. He said that a good working relationship with that office had been beneficial in his transition to assuming the Police Chief role. He welcomed input from the Commission regarding the operations manual.
Principal Chief Sneed indicated that he was responding to a request to be more involved in the Police Commission meetings and mentioned his intent to be more available for the sessions. “We want to keep the lines of communication open between Executive and the Commission, and the Police Department and Commission,” he said. “We want this to be a cooperative relationship and not a contentious one. I am really just here to observe, to offer my input or insight as needed. I’ll just let you know that I intend to make this a regular part of my schedule so we can talk directly.”
There was a lengthy discussion on the use of an extensive network of hiking and four-wheeler trails by people for drug activity. Police Chief Taylor stated that drug arrests are made regularly by EBCI Natural Resource Enforcement (NRE) and these routes are particularly difficult to monitor due to staffing issues. He referred to NRE as his “top tier woodland operations team”. He indicated that his most recent reporting between EBCI and Swain County (two-week report) was that there were 33 criminal citations, including seven arrests, issued just off the trail system.
The Police Chief also talked about creating new teams within his department to improve community outreach and he said that it is already showing results. “I have built things called Community Action teams or Criminal Interdiction Teams. I’ve done that with two enrolled members. So, with that Criminal Interdiction team from Aug. 29 for Sept. 10, they conducted seven license checks in Cherokee and Graham County. They issued 31 citations, served 17 warrants, and got 8.2 grams of drugs off the streets (methamphetamines or heroin). They did multiple community services; community policing; knocking on doors; speaking to the community; having lunch with the elders down there. The big thing is that they were contacted by the 30th Court District.”
He added, “Two Council members were contacted in the past from out there and a lieutenant was contacted in the past about a fugitive that was wanted on Federal Marshall warrants. There was a guy that was hidden in Indian country down there. Everybody knew where he was. We picked him up and then we got two more fugitive warrants out of the same house in Cherokee County from a woman for an armed robbery associate. U.S. 30th Court District’s actually writing us a letter of appreciation. The two gentlemen (on the Criminal Interdiction team) are building something that maybe we can add to later on. Because it’s when you guys call me or when the Chief calls me and says ‘Hey we’ve got a spot down here that’s getting pretty much held hostage’, that’s when we send them in there doing traffic stops; doing license checks; doing saturated police work and that’s what our community needs right now.”
Commissioner Saunooke asked about any disparities in pay, to which Police Chief Taylor deferred to EBCI Human Resources, stating that the police department was included in the recent compensation analysis to ensure that pay was in-line with the positions. Principal Chief Sneed added that all tribal employees would be receiving a 5 percent increase in pay as a result of the analysis, which will include the police department. He stated further that, if the analysis showed that a position was not being paid at market value based on the compensation analysis, it would be brought up to the market standard. During the discussion, Chairman Crowe requested a copy of the compensation analysis as it pertains to the law enforcement positions and the Chief committed to providing it to the Commission, caveating that names would be redacted from the report.
Well into the meeting, Commissioner Dunn asked that it become a practice to pray prior to the meeting beginning. He said that many big decisions were under consideration and that it would be beneficial to ask for divine guidance in these sessions. He then asked Principal Chief Sneed to lead in prayer and the Chief gave a prayer over the offices represented and the Commission.
Both Chairperson Crowe and Police Chief Taylor emphasized the desire to work together to support law enforcement and ensure better community outreach and service. Both leaders agreed that communication had not been what it should be in the past. The Commissioners and other entities said they could already see a positive difference in the level of communication from the Police Department.
Police Chief Taylor thanked the Commission, Principal Chief, Attorney General’s office, and particularly the Tribal Prosecutor’s Office for helping him as he transitioned into the Police Chief position.
In response to Taylor’s comment about both his office and that of the Prosecutor’s office going through some growing pains together, Commissioner Lossiah commented, “It is really good to hear your statement about the Prosecutor’s Office. They are the top law enforcement program of this Tribe and to have them as the final link, everything up the chain has to be strong and so I appreciate hearing that from you.”
Taylor responded, “I know it sounds weird, but we really changed the whole train of thought of how it goes between Law Enforcement and the Prosecutor’s Office. There used to be corrections, jail, patrol, investigation, prosecution-everything right? It’s all one. We all work for the same cause. Cody (White) and Shelli (Buckner) have been very good to me. All of you have, but they have helped me and they changed in the ways they think just because of the past; the ways they have been treated. They gave me an opportunity to come in and be a teammate and that’s fine. I need that because if not, I know I’m not going to be successful. I need their brains. I need their help.” He went on to say that the Prosecutors, along with Fire and EMS, are already going into trainings with law enforcement. “It is the way we have to be.”
Police Chief Taylor gave a brief update on progress with other divisions (ALE, Animal Control, NRE), reported on primary staff outages, and operations were moving along smoothly, and paperwork was being submitted. He did share an interesting anecdote concerning canine officer Vader who located a hidden gun in a spare tire. The tire was in a car in the control of a felon and drug dealer.
Officers from the Probation enforcement were next on the agenda. They had been asked at a previous meeting to bring the home passive restraints (referred to as “ankle bracelets”) for examination by the Commission. Officers first presented a GPS tracking bracelet, which they said used global satellite tracking to locate the bracelet and wearer. Probation officers are able to monitor people on probation through a computer or an application on their phones. The application allows the officers to use geo-fencing technology to be alerted when a person leaves their designated safe space (that space they are allowed by court order to be in) and also to alert an officer if the person enters a space that they are not permitted to go, as in the case of a domestic violence restraining order. The unit will also alert officers if the bracelet is removed or is not being properly charged by the person wearing it. The information from the bracelet is captured at intervals of a few minutes and stored, so that if there is ever a question of where someone was located at a specific time, it will be on record. The officers then presented an alcohol “sniffing” ankle bracelet that monitored the alcohol level of anyone wearing it. The example given for use of this bracelet was in the case of child custody where sobriety is a determining factor of custody.
Commissioner Dunn asked that it be emphasized that the bracelets are used for more than house arrest. He said just because someone is in Food Lion, for example, with an ankle bracelet on, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are violating their probation. Some common areas, like grocery stores, may have been approved by court order. The Probation officers added that not all bracelets that might be seen on the Qualla Boundary are issued by the Cherokee Court. It may belong to the state or some other entity.
The Probation officers and Police Chief Taylor spent several minutes discussing ways that the Police Department might support and assist the Probation department with probation enforcement. One of the Probation officers indicated that he had already seen a marked improvement in the level of assistance provided by the police.
There was a long discussion to address a complaint from a tribal member. She lives in an area she describes as a “checkerboard pattern” of tribal and state land. She has been having issues with people who are on drugs being in her yard, and in the road. One of these individuals frequenting her yard was banished, but is still showing up. She has reported this individual multiple times for being on tribal land (her property), but she is running into jurisdictional issues with both the police departments and governments over who should legally take action, and how she gets off-Boundary law enforcement and courts to enforce banishment and/or trespassing since the individual moves from tribal to state land when law enforcement is called out.
After several minutes of discussion, attorney Chris Siewers Jr. committed to assist the tribal member in preparing a document to submit to the assistant district attorney for her county, so that better cooperation might be provided from the outside government to address the trespassing and reduce the security concern that this banished individual presents to the tribal member and her family. The Commission indicated the issue of civil versus criminal authority in our court system has long been an issue that needs to be resolved to the benefit of all tribal land holders.
Cody White, senior prosecutor, gave a report on a “complete system overhaul for our recordkeeping.” He stated that all the database systems (of the various tribal legal systems) would talk to each other. He indicated that the police, court system, and prosecutors would be able to access certain interconnected data that would make their work more efficient and productive. He stated that even off-Boundary defense attorneys would be able to access certain information that would benefit the process in allowing tribal defendants more access to attorneys and make the interaction between defense attorneys and the tribal court system easier.
He addressed an ongoing perception of an overabundance of dismissals in the Tribal Court. He gave an example of someone getting four charges on a drug-related arrest. He must prosecute on one of the four offenses. He is prohibited from prosecuting all. Regardless of the outcome of the case, because of double jeopardy, the law will not allow the other three to be prosecuted. But, if he gets the conviction on the charge, and the other charges are automatically, by law, dismissed, it may sometimes be perceived that the Prosecutor’s office or another agency didn’t do their jobs when it is just how the law is written. He clarified that in the case of a conviction, the other charges are related and “merge” into the conviction. White said that the Prosecutor’s Office, working with the charging officers, is looking at a way that individuals can be charged with one offense at a time, so that the perception of more dismissals than convictions is resolved. “We are trying to paint a clearer, more accurate picture.”
White also reported that they had prosecuted 2,100 criminal cases in fiscal year 2021.
The next Cherokee Police Commission meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 14 at noon.