For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, the Nez Perce Tribal Police Department is part of a national traffic safety campaign.
Nez Perce Tribal Police Chief David Rogers said that an April crash on U.S. Highway 95 that resulted in the death of a 5-year-old from Lapwai who was ejected from a car prompted him to make traffic enforcement a priority. The driver and passengers in the 2006 Jeep Commander left the roadway April 5 and struck a utility pole. All three people in the vehicle were without seat belts and were ejected, according to police.
Rogers, who took the helm of the police department late last year, decided to make a change.
"The tribe hadn't been involved in a traffic safety program and we definitely want to be," Rogers said.
He asked for a volunteer among his officers to take charge of a newly instituted traffic safety program and officer Mike Grittner opted in.
The opportunity to join the national "Click it or Ticket" campaign is unique, Grittner said. A new program started by Idaho's federal court system earlier this year gave tribal police powers to issue citations to non-tribal members for certain misdemeanors, but Grittner said tribal police cannot write traffic tickets to non-tribal people.
Instead, if a tribal officer pulls over a non-tribal member for a traffic offense, county deputies or state troopers are called to assist. The stop will often result, simply, in an opportunity to educate.
Grittner said he often stops people to inform them of faulty equipment - usually burned-out headlights.
"We do have a lot of people, we notice, who aren't wearing seat belts," Grittner said.
The campaign, which runs through June 1, will also generate statistics that will be sent to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which helps fund state and municipal departments.
This year's campaign over Memorial Day weekend will also emphasize traffic checks for drunk drivers. According to the Idaho State Police, who are often called to assist tribal traffic stops, there were 137 crashes last year on Idaho roads during Memorial Day weekend. Those wrecks resulted in 79 people being injured and two resulted in fatalities.
Whether or not they issue citations, the tribal officers' intent is to have motorists on the Nez Perce Reservation wearing seat belts.
"We want to make the reservation a safe place to travel, not just on the highway but all the roadways," Grittner said. "This is the first step."
Bartholdt can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2275.