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Tribal Council explores possibility of elected police chief

fr cherokeepoliceThere’s talk in Cherokee of making the chief of police’s job an elected position following a resolution introduced by Travis Smith, a Birdtown resident who’s also a candidate for Tribal Council.

“He’s got over 60 sworn officers,” Smith said of the current chief, Ben Reed. “You’ve got this many officers staffed and sworn in. After 6 o’clock you don’t see but three or four. To me it’s a management problem.” 

Smith originally introduced the legislation in May, but it was tabled so councilmembers could talk to their constituents before moving forward. By the July meeting, they were ready to bring the issue — and their constituents’ feedback — to the council floor. 

Reports were mixed. 

“You mentioned taking the politics out of it by making it an elected position, but a lot of them are telling me once it becomes an elected position, then it becomes even more political,” said Vice Chair Bill Taylor, of Wolftown. 

“One of the worries that lot of the officers have (is) that if it was an elected position, it would turn into almost like a sheriff’s race and they could come out and fire whoever they want to,” agreed Snowbird Representative Adam Wachacha. 

“If you don’t support that person, you might as well be looking for a new job,” concurred Birdtown Representative Gene “Tunney” Crowe, who is running for principal chief. 

But despite these reservations, councilmembers generally saw merit in talking more about making the police chief’s job an elected one. 


Falling down on the job?

“Travis, I agree with you it is a management issue, and because of that we need to take some care and some thought and move forward with this,” said Chairwoman Terri Henry, of Painttown. 

Police officers don’t patrol the community as thoroughly as they should, councilmembers reported their constituents saying, and the police chief isn’t available on weekends. Illegal drug use happens out in the open, they said, and many crimes go unresolved.

Tribal member Amy Walker took the podium to talk about one such unprosecuted crime. Her adult son, of whom she is guardian — “My son is not capable of protecting himself,” she said — had televisions stolen on two separate occasions. Walker knows who did it, she said, but police never arrested anyone. Her son lives on a fixed income, she said, and possessions such as televisions can be hard to replace. 

“We even told them who did it,” Walker said, “but the police never even contacted us back.”

“I feel like this person has fallen down on his job,” she said of Reed. 


Looking for a solution 

Most councilmembers seemed to agree there is a problem in the police department. What was harder to agree on was what, exactly, to do about it. 

The first question is whether tribal members really do support electing the office. Ballots have already been ordered for the September elections, so an official referendum won’t happen this fall. But what about a less formal poll, asked Big Cove Representative Teresa McCoy, a piece of paper that voters receive with their ballot but deposit in a separate box?

“It should just be nothing more than a piece of paper with a question,” she said. “Do you want to elect your chief of police? A yes or no. It’s that simple.”

If the answer comes back yes, then council could go about setting a year for the first election to take place and passing any necessary legislation to add another elected position to those listed in the tribe’s Charter and Governing Document. It should happen in an off year from the chief’s race, Smith said, to avoid campaign coordination by candidates for the two offices. 

But would electing the chief of police actually solve the problem, some councilmembers asked? Or does the issue go higher than that? 

“Until we start pushing this constitution to get it set, we’re basically just piecemealing,” Wachacha said. Currently, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is without an official constitution, but a push is underway to get a document in place that clearly outlines the separation of powers in tribal government. Would changing the way the chief of police is selected before adopting a constitution be a bit like hanging up the pictures before painting the wall, Wachacha wondered? 

Or, McCoy asked, is electing the head of the police department not going far enough? 

“Hannah, the position that she’s in needs to be elected, and that person needs to be able to charge any elected official, investigate any elected official, and in the event they find something criminal they need to be able to charge that elected official,” McCoy said of the Attorney General position, held by Hannah Smith. 

Outside of tribal lands in North Carolina, the analogous district attorney’s job is an elected position, McCoy pointed out, and that person can prosecute anyone — regardless of power or status — who breaks the law in her jurisdiction. 

“My issue isn’t just with the police department, it’s with the court,” she said, “and quite frankly Big Cove has been tired for a long time of being a community full of victims that get no justice.”

But on the police department’s end, it’s more than just an issue of who’s at the helm. Part of the problem stems from the Cherokee Police Commission, the board tasked with keeping an eye on the department’s doings, Henry said.

“The police commission is set up to be a policy board,” she said. “It doesn’t really have the teeth to do any enforcement per say.” 

The police chief is part of the executive branch of government, working underneath of the principal chief, she said. The police commission can’t hire or fire him. 

“I think that for whatever reason there have been some hiccups with respect to getting the police commission and the chief of police to doing what needs to be done,” she said. 

So, maybe there’s cause for making the police chief’s job an elected position, she said, but council should also consider reorganizing the commission. 

“I could see the police commission as functioning like an oversight board and being able to do some grievance issues,” she said. 


Food for thought

It’s a complicated enough question that council opted not to make a decision on the matter yet. They voted unanimously to set up a work session where they can pull apart the options and possibly come back with new legislation for a vote. It’s hard to say what will happen, but momentum seems to be pointing forward. 

“It’s very frustrating to listen to and it’s very frustrating to think about if you’re the crime victim,” Henry said. “We need to do something.”

Police Chief Ben Reed did not respond to voicemails requesting comment. 

[Editor’s note: The Smoky Mountain News was asked to leave the July 9 Tribal Council meeting after a straw poll when a majority of Tribal Council members voted to exclude the newspaper from the meeting. However, all meetings are streamed live online, which is how this story was reported. It would be against the law for any other public body in North Carolina to exclude the media.] 

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