They have more than 50 state-certified police officers between them, as well as a fleet of cruisers, holding cells for suspects, a firearms-training range and an automated fingerprinting system.
But what police at the sovereign-nation reservations of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and its neighboring Mohegan Tribe don’t have is the power to issue pistol permits to their residents as is granted to every municipal department in the state.
A proposed bill before the General Assembly would change that, and was the subject of a public hearing this week before the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee.
Merrill Reels, treasurer of the Pequot tribal council and Chair of its safety committee, testified that he finds it inexplicable that a department with assets that eclipse some local forces are not on equal footing in that regard.
“It is very perplexing, and in my opinion insulting, that our tribe does not have the authority to issue temporary permits for the people of Mashantucket,” Reels said. “This is counterintuitive given the amount of public safety measures we are wholly responsible for as a sovereign government.”
Instead, the approximately 550 members who live on the reservation must apply for a pistol permit through the police department in Ledyard, where the reservation is located. About 300 people live on the Mohegan reservation in Uncasville, a section of Montville.
Tribal police, which enlists many officers who retired from other departments, also are responsible for law-enforcement at their casinos.
“What makes your police department fundamentally different than the Ledyard police department?” Republican committee member State Rep. Greg Howard, a veteran Stonington police officer, asked Pequot tribal police Chief Joseph Brooks, who accompanied Reels at the hearing.
“There are really no differences,” Brooks replied. “To tell you the truth, if we don’t have more enhanced services, we do have the exact services that the town of Ledyard has.”
Howard said the issue was also raised in 2017, when the state Attorney General and the Commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection opposed granting permit-issuing authority to the tribes because there was no legislative approval to do so.
“It was more that the legislative wording didn’t allow for it,” rather than opposition to the authority itself, Howard said. “I support the bill because tribal members who live on the reservation have expressed to me how important it is to them that they be able to go to their police department and not the local municipal police department. In considering that their police department has the same qualifications and certifications as municipal departments, I agree with them that it makes no sense for them to have to go some to some other department.”
The newly-proposed legislation would change the relevant state statute to read in part that: “If the applicant has a bona fide permanent residence within the jurisdiction of any federally recognized Native American tribe within the borders of the state, and such tribe has a law enforcement unit…the chief of police of such law enforcement unit may issue a temporary state permit to such person.”
Applicants would need to complete all the state-mandated requirements to obtain a permit such as a training course on gun use and safety, and a background check.
Final approval of the permit, which authorizes the owner to carry a concealed handgun, is made by the commissioner of the state police.
The proposed bill will eventually be put to a vote of the public safety committee whether to send it to the House and Senate for debate and possible approval.
In a statement to CT Examiner following the hearing, Reels said he sees being able to issue pistol permits by their own department as a basic function of its sovereignty that has been lacking.
“The federal government recognizes our government as much like a state within a state, superior to municipalities,” he said. “Our ability to issue temporary firearm permits is therefore both an expression and exercise of our tribal sovereignty, providing services to our community that are, at minimum, equal to those available in other municipalities.”
At the legislative hearing this week, Reels compared the situation to one from a few years ago when the tribe had to go to the legislature to amend a state statute so that marriage licenses issued on the reservation were recognized by the state.
“This isn’t the first provision we have had to fix legislatively and it won’t be the last,” he said.No one from the Mohegan tribe spoke at the hearing, and Mohegan police Chief Jeffrey Hotsky did not reply to a request for comment.