Mille Lacs Band suing county, sheriff in police dispute

- The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe has filed a federal lawsuit against Mille Lacs County, the sheriff and the county’s prosecutor, asking the court to allow tribal police to enforce state, federal and tribal law on the reservation. The complaint alleges that the county, Sheriff Brent Lindgren and County Attorney Joseph Walsh have prevented Mille Lacs Band police officers from investigating crimes and making arrests within the reservation. The Band claims this is contributing to an epidemic of drug-related overdoses and deaths on the reservation.

“We cannot wait another minute to address this emergency. Our people are dying, our community is in crisis, and our neighbors are at risk,” Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin said in a statement. “Gangs and drug dealers think our reservation is a police-free zone. They’re not just coming from the Twin Cities, but from other cities, states and reservations. They’re selling drugs right in front of our officers, because they know they're unlikely to be arrested, let alone prosecuted." 

Minnesota state statute designated the tribal police as peace officers in 1991. In July 2016, Mille Lacs County revoked its agreement with tribal police, citing a dispute over the enforcement of state law versus tribal law.

“No law enforcement agency is above the law,” said a statement from Mille Lacs County Administrator Pat Oman following the decision. “As stated in the resolution, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s choices in the past year made it clear that tribal government prioritized tribal law over and above Minnesota law and its cooperative relationship with Mille Lacs County. Given the circumstances, this was the only choice that Mille Lacs County could make to uphold the integrity of state law.”

The primary law enforcement response in tribal lands was transitioned to the county sheriff, but the Mille Lacs Band says that in 2015 and 2016, Mille Lacs County had the highest crime rate of all 87 counties in Minnesota. According to the Band, the reservation has seen a dramatic increase in drug crimes, drug overdoses and drug-related deaths since the county revoked the law enforcement agreement.

“We had 32 tribal police officers who knew our families and our culture. The County chose to replace them with six new deputies, who don’t know our community,” said a statement from Mille Lacs Band District 1 Representative Sandra Blake.

The law enforcement dispute is part of a long-standing dispute over the boundary of the Mille Lacs Reservation. The 1855 treaty established a reservation that was approximately 61,000 acres in size, including areas that are now the towns of Kathio, South Harbor, and Isle Harbor.

Benjamin said Mille Lacs County's termination of the law enforcement agreement was their way to force the Band to yield in the boundary dispute.

“County officials have been holding the safety of tribal members hostage for 16 months, continuing to make the absurd claim that our reservation does not legally exist,” Benjamin said.

The Mille Lacs Band plans to follow through with mediation with the county, which is scheduled for Nov. 27, 2017. The Band hopes this federal lawsuit will take the reservation boundary off the negotiating table so the two sides can focus solely on law enforcement and public safety issues.

In its complaint, the Mille Lacs Band requests a federal judge declare that, under federal law, the Band has “inherent sovereign authority” to establish a police department and to authorize Band police officers to investigate federal, state and tribal crimes within the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation. The complaint also seeks a declaration that, under the Deputation Agreement between the Band and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Special Law Enforcement Commissions, the tribal police officers have federal authority to investigate violations of federal law within the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation and to arrest suspects for violations of federal law.

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