Published June 30. 2014 4:00AM Updated June 30. 2014 12:07PM
By all outward appearances, officers with the Mohegan Tribal Police Department have always been police officers.
They wore uniforms, carried guns, broke up fights, nabbed thieves and cheats and investigated crimes, as any municipal police department would. By all accounts, they are some of the most experienced in the state, a cadre of former municipal officers and state troopers, all with state certification.
But until last month, the state court system never recognized their work. Rather, criminals and the accompanying reports and evidence compiled by officers were handed off to the state police.
And despite the close working relationship between officers and state troopers, there was no way of getting around some duplication of effort, according to Mohegan Tribal Police Chief Jeffrey Hotsky, a former state trooper and longtime member of the statewide narcotics unit.
That changed on May 14 with the signing of an agreement signed by the Dora Schriro, commissioner of the state Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane and Mohegan Tribal Chairman Kevin Brown.
The agreement grants the department full police powers, outlines jurisdictional boundaries and, for the first time in the police department's 17-year history, allows the New London Judicial District to recognize their reports, affidavits and other evidence used in prosecutions.
"Even though it's the same job, now they are being recognized for what they are - police officers," Hotsky said.
Mohegan Police Sgt. Ted Parker, a longtime detective formerly with the Montville-based state police major crime squad, said officers are able to take more ownership of their cases and "see things through."
"They have more input as to how the case plays out instead of handing things off," he said.
There are other changes that are not likely to be noticed by visitors to the casino or to tribally owned land unless they are arrested.
Officers can now test blood alcohol levels, fingerprint suspects and hold an arrestee in a holding cell overnight if the need arises. And, since they are now recognized as police officers under state law, an assault of a tribal officer is now a felony.
The agreement allows the tribe to forego a payment of more than $3 million a year toward the cost of the state police casino unit, which had been on hand to take any arrested suspects into custody. However, Mohegan Tribal Council member Mark Brown said the tribe is incurring a large cost increase with a boost in police numbers, new equipment and generally higher costs to run the department.
Terms of jurisdiction
Under the terms of the agreement, officers now have jurisdiction at the casino, tribe-owned land and the 544-acre reservation, all of which are located within Montville.
The map appended to the agreement shows Mohegan Sun casino, Fort Shantok, the Mohegan Church and Museum and Mohegan Retirement Community, along with a smattering of tribally owned housing.
State police will continue also to have jurisdiction in the area patrolled by tribal officers, according to the agreement. The tribe agreed to notify state police of any reported felonies and suspicious deaths. Hotsky said he would expect state police to come in, as they would in any municipality, on larger investigations because of their greater depth of resources.
One effect of the expansion of jurisdiction is that tribal police may now patrol the entire employee parking lot off Trading Cove Road. Previously, state police had sole jurisdiction over the half that is not part of the reservation.
The agreement calls for "a sufficient number of sworn police personnel to efficiently maintain the operation of the tribal police department." While specific numbers are not noted, the agreement calls for an annual update of staffing and an assessment of the numbers of officers needed "to protect public safety" to be submitted to the state.
The agreement may be amended if the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, owners of Foxwoods Casino, sign an agreement with the state "containing terms more favorable than the terms in this agreement."
State officials say an agreement similar to the Mohegans' is close to being signed and would grant police powers to the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Police Department. The Mashantucket department has worked over the past several years to ensure that all officers are also accredited through the state Police Officer Standards and Training Council (POST), which means they attended the state police academy.
A wealth of experience
The Mohegan department employs 25 full-time officers and two part-time officers and boasts a wealth of experience. Officers average 25 years in law enforcement, a combined 683 years in law enforcement, with a mix of former officers and state troopers, including former members of the state police casino unit, major crime detectives, juvenile officers and SWAT team members.
The result is a force that Hotsky said "has been around the block a few times."
With age and experience comes wisdom, he said, and the ability to deal with people and de-escalate situations is a quality especially cherished.
It's not by mistake, said Tribal Council member Mark Brown, a former Norwich police officer who hired veteran officers from Norwich and Montville to start the establishment of the police force in 1996 while the casino was still partially under construction.
From the inception of the department, the plan was to hire experienced officers who are POST certified. They are also federally trained and certified through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
"Tribes all over the country take different approaches. For us, we did not want to overthink things," Brown said. "Let's get qualified individuals looking for a job. It's a mix of people who have done it all."
Hotsky himself is a longtime veteran of the Connecticut state police who got his start as a New London police officer. He spent 17 years with the statewide narcotics task force and a brief stint in the casino unit when Foxwoods opened in 1992.
Mohegan police work with security officers and surveillance teams that monitor hundreds of cameras throughout the casino. Surveillance officers are often the first to spot a potential crime, everything from thefts and bad conduct to cheating at one of the gaming tables. Surveillance teams track any police activity on the casino floor.
"Find another city that has as many cameras as we have," Brown said. "This may very well be the safest place around."
Hotsky said the number of officers on patrol varies depending on events at the casino: a minimum of four officers and as many as eight at a Mohegan Sun Arena show, depending on the type of show. The department also has a substation on the concourse near the arena with a temporary holding cell.
Mohegan has two courts, Mohegan Gaming Disputes Court and Mohegan Tribal Court, but criminal issues have always, and will continue, to be handled by the state court system.
While they are not without felony arrests, Hotsky said Mohegan property "is the wrong place for a criminal to go."