ST. GEORGE – If Congressman Chris Stewart has his way the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management could someday lose their law enforcement functions.
Stewart was one of the co-sponsors of the bill proposing the Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act of 2016 that, if passed, will abolish the Forest Service Law Enforcement unit and the Investigations unit within the Department of Agriculture and the BLM Office of Law Enforcement and Security in the Department of Interior.
The bill emphasizes the importance of state and local policing of federal lands and requires both the Agriculture and Interior secretaries give grants to the states to fund those needed law enforcement activities.
Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, originally introduced the bill in March. Utah Reps. Rob Bishop and Mia Love are also co-sponsors of the legislation. No congressional action has been taken on the proposed legislation so far.
See video excerpt of our Chris Stewart interview top of this report.
“Federal agencies do not enjoy the same level of trust and respect as local law enforcement that are deeply rooted in communities,” the lawmakers stated in a collective statement issued upon introducing the bill.
“This legislation will help de-escalate conflicts between law enforcement and local residents while improving transparency and accountability. The BLM and Forest Service will be able to focus on their core missions without the distraction of police functions.”
The Utah lawmakers pointed to reported conflicts between federal land officers and local communities as part of the reason for introducing the bill.
During an exclusive interview with St. George News, Stewart said federal law enforcement officers are now dealing with many issues that should be reserved for local sheriffs who are familiar with the residents and topography of the area.
“I can’t tell you how many sheriffs I’ve talked to who are resentful and angry of federal officials, not just the BLM, who are coming in and taking on law enforcement responsibilities that the sheriff should be doing. And they’ve heard stories and examples from citizens who, in some cases, have been abused by these officials.”
Federal News Radio located in Washington state quotes the National President of the Federal Enforcement Officers Association, Nate Catura, stating that while the sheriffs’ concerns may be valid, the issues between federal, state and local law enforcement are not as prevalent as some would argue.
“It’s just pandering to a very small minority group of people that are just anti-government,” Catura said. “They just hate the federal government. They want as little interference with the federal government as possible, and they see that the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service are causing problems for them in their local areas. Except that probably 85 percent of the United States doesn’t have any problem. It’s just in Utah and Nevada and probably a small part in Oregon.”
Catura also maintains state and local officers lack the specialized expertise and training needed to patrol federal lands.
Stewart doesn’t agree and believes the law enforcement arm of the federal government is doing more harm than good.
“So if we take away that law enforcement capability it takes away the problem and allows them (federal officials) to do what they’re good at and what they should be doing and that’s managing the land, managing the forests, managing the wildlife,” Stewart said. “It allows the sheriff to do what they’re trained to do, what they’re good at and that’s protecting our citizens and law enforcement. There shouldn’t be an overlap between the two.
The Utah Sheriffs and Western Sheriffs associations both actively support the bill arguing there are “aggressive and over reactive federal land agents,” who often overstep their authority.
This is a huge concern for the Utah congressman who argued there is a lack of accountability when it comes to the actions of federal law enforcement officers.
“There is a reason local sheriffs are elected,” Stewart said. “If they’re hassling you, or if their deputies are hassling you, you can go hold them accountable. Federal officials, that’s not the case. Many of these times we can’t identify who these officials are and if you do they’re just not as responsive because they work for the federal government.”
Stewart introduced a similar bill two years ago called the Regulatory Agency De-militarization (RAD) Act of 2014. The bill stemmed from the trend of federal regulatory agencies developing SWAT-like law enforcement teams. Examples of these include the Department of Education, Department of Federal Trade Commission and Department of Environmental Protection.
RAD died in committee but had it passed it would have prohibited federal agencies, other than those tasked with enforcing federal law such as the FBI, from purchasing machine guns, grenades and other weaponry regulated under the National Firearms Act.
It also would have repealed the arrest and firearm authority granted to Offices of Inspectors General in the 2002 Homeland Security Act.
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