Payson police will once again back up Tonto Apache cops when they need help.
The Payson Town Council last week approved a new mutual aid agreement with the tribe, which has its own police force to take care of problems at the casino and several hundred acres of nearby land.
The agreement finally puts to rest a long series of problems that stemmed from a lawsuit against the town that resulted from a drunken driver who ran down a man in the casino parking lot several years ago.
The key to the new understanding was an agreement by the tribe to provide liability insurance, which would protect the town in the event Payson firefighters or police officers encountered a problem while operating on reservation land.
“The five-year term of the agreement requires both parties to maintain $1 million in liability insurance,” said Town Attorney Sam Streichman.
The new agreement brings relations between the tribe and the town full circle. Several years ago, the town had a mutual aid agreement with the tribal police force — as it also maintains with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office and all the surrounding fire departments.
Such agreements generally provide for backup in an emergency, with each agency responsible for paying salaries, overtime, equipment costs and workmen’s compensation.
However, several years ago a patron of the casino got drunk, got in his car and accidentally ran over a man in the casino parking lot. The family of the victim sued the casino, for letting the drunken customer leave the bar. However, Indian reservations are legally their own country — which means they have unique protection from lawsuits.
As a result, the family of the victim included Payson in its lawsuit, because of the town’s contractual relationship with the tribe — even though no Payson police were involved in the incident.
The town settled the lawsuit out of court, then ended its law enforcement and backup agreements with the tribe, saying it involved too many risks unless the tribe carried some sort of liability insurance.
Last year, Payson came close to an agreement to take over law enforcement on the reservation, but at the last minute the tribe decided to continue running its own department.
The latest agreement will provide the reservation police with backup from Payson in the event that a problem develops.
The contract underscores the tribe’s continued special status, including its “sovereign immunity” protection from lawsuits — although the million-dollar liability policy would cover settlements from certain kinds of incidents.
The agreement still allows the Payson police to enter the reservation, make an arrest and take that person to the Payson jail when they enter the reservation in “hot pursuit” of a crime suspect.
However, the agreement requires the Payson police to turn over to the tribal police any Native American arrested on the reservation when they’re not in hot pursuit.
The agreement also says Payson officers will get federally-offered training on the special rules that apply to police work on reservations, where the tribe generally sets laws and policies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation probes major crimes. The agreement acknowledged that state laws do not apply to reservation land.