Allegations of poor police conduct during mental health crises were called “deeply disturbing” by Gov. Jay Inslee in a meeting this week with Tribal leaders who were also concerned about Indigenous prisoner rights.
Washington state Tribal leaders met with Inslee at the annual Centennial Accord Meeting Wednesday, Oct. 27, at the Skookum Creek Event Center in Shelton, Wash.
The annual meeting focuses on cementing the government-to-government relationship between the state and Tribes with representatives from the state’s 29 federally recognized Tribes and a few other Pacific Northwest Tribes.
Many Tribes criticized Gov. Inslee’s decision to veto sections of the Climate Commitment Act that Tribes worked on to guarantee historic levels of consultation and protections for their sacred sites and burial grounds.
Inslee acknowledged their concerns, but added he’s committed to developing a successful consultation process and is “very pleased about how our discussions are going in that direction.”
Nisqually Chairman Willie Frank III, Department of Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange and Indigenous rights lawyer Gabe Galanda discussed Indigenous prisoner religious freedoms at the event.
Galanda focused on the work of Huy — a non-profit organization that supports Indigenous prisoners and has advocated throughout the pandemic for their right to reengage in religious activities such as sweat-lodge ceremonies, drumming and powwows that stopped due to COVID. With support of Tribal nations, the efforts became successful late this summer.
American Indians and Alaska Natives make up about 1% of the state population, but nearly 6% of those incarcerated, Galanda said. The population also experiences a 45.3% recidivism rate within 36 months, the Race and Criminal Justice Task Force 2.0 presented to the Washington Supreme Court in September.
The Indigenous rights lawyer also brought attention to local Tribal members — many relatives of present Tribal leaders — who died while in police custody. Some, Galanda said, were experiencing a mental health crisis and 14 had died by suicide.
“In each of these deaths, governor, whether in jail or on the street, leaves holes in the hearts of our people and Indigenous communities. It causes further distrust between Indigenous communities and state law enforcement systems,” he said.
Gov. Inslee commented that he had signed 11 bills the legislature passed this year to reduce police-citizen violence.
Suquamish Tribe Health Clinic Manager and American Indian Health Commission Chair Stephen Kutz also discussed law enforcement and mental health in a presentation on Native health. He alleged a trend in law enforcement officers not responding to the scenes of mental health crises following the passage of legislation such as House Bill 1310, which focused on use of force by law enforcement and correctional officers.
Inslee said the testimony was deeply disturbing and that law enforcement refusing to respond to these scenes may impede the confidence and safety of mental health professionals in attending to those in need.
After sharing about his recent visit to the Whatcom County Crisis Stabilization Center in Bellingham, Inslee called on Tribal leaders to not let police officers use mental health crises as a reason to not respond.
“I’m sorry if you’re experiencing that. I want to say unequivocally, there’s nothing in the bills that passed that prohibit in any way shape or form... a police officer from responding to the scene of a mental health crisis,” he said. “I’d love to work with all of you to develop a more robust way to have psychologists, counselors to be on the site.”
COVID and Tribal Health
Kutz said that during the COVID pandemic, other key health issues may have not received the attention needed.
He detailed how the Indian Behavioral Health Act in 2020 — which codified the inclusion of Tribal governments and Indian health care providers in the state behavioral health crisis system, established a Tribal-designated crisis responder and a system to notify Tribes and healthcare providers when Tribal citizens were involuntarily treated or admitted off Tribal land — has not been able to fully serve those in state-contracted behavioral health, mental health and substance abuse facilities.
“These entities are not being held to task when they fail to respond to reform,” he said, recommending a survey of Tribes to find more recent examples of these occurrences.
Kutz — a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe — also said that pandemics are not new to Indigenous people who were decimated by illness introduced through European contact.
Despite historical distrust of Western medicine, Kutz said Tribal nations were leaders in preventative measures during the pandemic and can continue to be.
“Many of us have been the lifeblood in providing those services to our surrounding communities,” he said. “We need to remember that foundational public health is not the totality of the Tribal public health system... foundational public health is to supplement what exists already.”
Kutz was followed by Department of Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah and Acting Medicaid Director for the Health Care Authority Charissa Fotinos via Zoom.
The governor’s Indian Health Advisory Council put together a draft listing several recommendations for the Indian Health Advisory Plan as required by the Washington Indian Health Improvement Act in the pre-meetings held before the Centennial Accord, Kutz said, which are expected to be presented Dec. 9.