SYCUAN INDIAN RESERVATION – For years, officers of Sycuan's small tribal police force have gone through the same academy and training as the region's sheriff's deputies and municipal police.

Now they're real cops.

The East County tribe received notice from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs yesterday that its eight-member police department is an officially recognized federal law enforcement authority.
The federal commission, giving Sycuan's tribal police full powers of arrest and investigation, is a first for any tribe in Southern California, and only the second in the state.

“This is huge,” Sycuan spokesman Adam Day said. “This gives them the ability to much more actively and proactively observe and enforce criminal law on and off the reservation.”

Although Sycuan's reservation patrol has called itself a police department since the 1990s, until now it has had little more authority than private security guards. If tribal officers caught lawbreakers, they had to call in sheriff's deputies to make an arrest. They had no more than citizen's arrest powers to search or detain suspects. Sycuan police can now arrest suspects in federal crimes, and detain them for infractions of state law. They also can pursue investigations of tribal-based crimes beyond the reservation boundaries.

“They retain that (federal police) status off the reservation,” said Sycuan Police Chief Bill Denke, adding that he hopes to add a full-time detective and at least three more officers by next year. The department also has a support staff of seven non-commissioned public safety officers.

Denke said that under Sycuan's formal police status, shared in California by only one other tribe in Mendocino County, his officers can investigate and enforce federal laws that sheriff's deputies could not.

“There are federal laws that apply on the reservation, specific crimes,” he said. “Instead of just being theft under the state (law), there's actually a federal crime of theft from a gaming establishment, or theft from a federally recognized tribe.”

Denke said Sycuan has long been one of only a few tribes in Southern California to have a police force reporting to the tribal government, separate from casino security.

“We handle everything from drugs to illegal fishing,” he said, adding that his department will continue to work cooperatively with the Sheriff's Department.

Sycuan has no jail and no plans to build one, Denke said. Arrestees will be taken to county or federal jails.

Sycuan tribal Chairman Danny Tucker released a prepared statement praising the department's upgraded status. “We take great pride in the professionalism of our tribal police force,” he said