Swinomish police gain access to crime databases

October 31, 2018

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Police Department will soon have an easier way to serve its community.

The department was recently selected as one of 25 tribal police departments nationwide to be added to the federal government’s Tribal Access Program (TAP), which will allow the tribe to more easily access national crime information.

“Up until now, that’s been a very difficult thing for the tribe to do,” Swinomish Police Chief Lou D’Amelio said.

Access to TAP will give the department the ability to check national databases such as the National Crime Information Center or the Instant Criminal Background Check System on its own, rather than having to rely on local or state authorities, D’Amelio said.

The U.S. Department of Justice tasks states with protecting the information and making sure local jurisdictions access the information properly.

In Washington, that means the State Patrol is in charge of making sure jurisdictions such as the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office or city police departments properly maintain and access those records.

Because tribal police departments are not governed by the state, the State Patrol cannot grant such access or provide such monitoring.

As such, tribal police departments have to rely on neighboring departments to access that information, D’Amelio said.

“We were stymied by the fact we had to do it through a third party,” D’Amelio said. “Our workarounds have worked well for a long time, but they have been, in some ways, an imposition.”

For example, in order to file a court order, a tribal police officer has to deliver the order to the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office and ask a records employees to file it.

“The reality of court orders is they change,” D’Amelio said. “We’d have to go over every single time.”

The program is helpful for more than criminal justice purposes, D’Amelio said. The tribe will be able to run its own background checks on individuals seeking employment with the tribe.

“Those fingerprints go directly to the Department of Justice, as if we were the state of Washington,” he said. “We don’t have to route them through State Patrol. As a sovereign state, to me that makes sense.”

Other databases the tribe will now have access to will allow it to more easily register sex offenders, identify human remains and locate missing people.

“It’s taking a Pony Express way of doing things and bringing it into the 21st Century,” said U.S. Attorney Annette Hayes of the Western District of Washington. “It’s like a missing piece in the puzzle that we’re now making sure gets filled in.”

Hayes cited the 2014 shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School as an example of where the TAP program would have been helpful if it had been available.

In that case, the gun the 15-year-old shooter used was taken from his father, a member of the Tulalip Tribes who was not allowed to have a gun, Hayes said.

But because the TAP system was not in place with the Tulalip Tribes, not all law enforcement officials were aware of the gun restriction.

“It didn’t allow law enforcement to understand the risk,” she said.

The program first became available to tribal departments in 2015, according to a news release from Hayes’ office.

At the time, 10 tribes — including the Suquamish Tribe in Washington — were added to the system.

The Swinomish applied for the program in 2016, D’Amelio said, and again earlier this year.

With the Swinomish’s acceptance into the program, nine tribes in Washington will have full or partial access, the news release from Hayes’ office states.

The Swinomish will have full access.

By 2019, Hayes said 72 tribes will have full or limited access to the TAP program.

“That program allows our tribal law enforcement partners to provide more public safety not only in Indian Country, but also creates more public safety in other communities,” Hayes said. “As we all know, bad guys don’t see lines on a map, they move around.”