ONAMIA, MINN. – A 15-month dispute between county and tribal leaders over policing of the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation has drawn the ire of Gov. Mark Dayton, who is urging the two sides to quickly end what he calls a “public safety crisis.”
After working together for 25 years under a joint law enforcement agreement, Mille Lacs County severed ties with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s police department in the summer of 2016 because of concerns about tribal police work. Tribal officials say those concerns are meritless and that the county’s decision to end the relationship jeopardizes public safety.
Since then, negotiations over a new agreement have deadlocked, and mediation ended in an impasse. Hoping to resolve the conflict, Dayton met recently with county leaders at the Capitol to little avail.
“There’s a big divide,” Dayton said afterward. “It’s just intolerable to have this impasse and it’s not any closer to resolution.”
At issue, tribal leaders say, is the safety of 1,500 tribal members who live on the reservation about 100 miles north of the Twin Cities.
Tribal police, funded by the band at a cost of about $3 million a year, were designated as peace officers in a 1991 state statute. But in June 2016, when Mille Lacs County commissioners unanimously voted to end the joint law enforcement agreement, they eliminated the authority of the 32 tribal police officers to be dispatched on 911 calls or be recognized as peace officers by the county.
That means that while tribal police can prosecute smaller civil and some misdemeanor offenses in tribal court and make an arrest, they can’t bring anyone to the county jail, work investigations or seek charges from the county attorney.
County deputies still provide 24-hour coverage, notifying tribal police to jointly patrol tribal trust lands. But they are farther from the reservation than tribal officers and often take longer to respond to calls, tribal leaders say.
The result: Fewer crimes are being charged, tribal officials say.
“Things are worse now,” Mille Lacs Band Solicitor General Todd Matha said. “There’s no longer proactive or community policing going on in this area.”
The impasse comes as heroin and opioid abuse sweeps across Minnesota and the nation. The Mille Lacs Reservation has reported 45 overdoses in the past year — three ending in deaths.
“Lives are in danger,” Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin said. “We’ve never had this many … deaths and overdoses.”
In a Sept. 18 letter to both sides, Dayton pushed for a speedy resolution and called the county’s “inadequate response to serious crimes” in the county “dangerously irresponsible and morally indefensible.”
County leaders didn’t return phone messages to address the dispute and declined to elaborate on the details of their meeting with Dayton.
But the governor, who has heard complaints from tribal members and nontribal residents in Mille Lacs County about increasing crime and slower police response, said that Sheriff Brent Lindgren disputed those claims at the meeting.
Dayton also said county leaders “presented, not surprisingly, a very different picture of the situation.”
In a Sept. 20 letter to Dayton, Lindgren, County Board Chairman Roger Tellinghuisen and County Attorney Joe Walsh said the agreement with the band was revoked because of several concerns, including tribal police “hiding felony investigations” and excluding deputies from crime scenes. They noted that deputies still respond to calls on the reservation 24 hours a day.
After meeting with county officials, Dayton encouraged the two sides to return to mediation. This time, he said, public pressure could help push for a resolution.
“It’s just imperative if you’re going to protect the public … that you be working in close cooperation,” he said. “It’s been 15 months and this impasse isn’t any closer to a resolution. It can’t continue like this.”
While the county hired some new deputies after revoking the law enforcement agreement, it’s not the same as tribal police with full authority working a community that knows them well, tribal leaders said.
Over the past year, Rice said, several tribal officers have left to work elsewhere, and she’s reassigned others to nearby Pine County, where they are formally recognized as officers under terms of a joint working agreement. Twenty-three tribal officers remain.
But every day that passes without a resolution leaves gang members and drug dealers “running rampant,” Benjamin said, because they know there’s less law enforcement.
“This continually leaves this community in turmoil,” she said. “What’s next? A gang war?”
A tense history
The standoff over public safety stems from a broader dispute over reservation boundaries and has contributed to increasingly strained relations between the county and tribe.
The tribe believes an 1855 treaty that set the size of the reservation at roughly 61,000 acres is still valid. But the county and state believe the reservation has since been “disestablished or diminished” to only a few thousand acres. In a news release last year after the law enforcement agreement was revoked, the county said that if the 61,000 acres was recognized, the band could “assert jurisdiction” over the entire area, which would include nontribal members.
While that dispute has been simmering for 25 years, tribal officials said it heated up again in 2015, when the Department of Interior issued an opinion siding with the tribe on the reservation’s boundaries.
Tribal officials also say that the county is upset that the band got federal approval in 2016 to pursue prosecution for certain major crimes through federal courts.
In contrast to the strained relationship with Mille Lacs County, the band’s partnership with Pine County law enforcement is good, Administrator David Minke said. In fact, county commissioners last May approved a new agreement with the Mille Lacs Band that extended the tribal police’s jurisdiction.
“We’ve built a relationship and developed trust with each other,” said Pine County Commissioner Steve Hallan, adding that leaders from both sides meet monthly. “We’ve come to understand people as people, not as natives.”