Minnesota Tribe Fights County for More Police Power

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe claims in court that a Minnesota county is violating federal law by preventing its tribal law enforcement body from using police powers on its reservation.

The tribe, Mille Lacs Band Chief of Police Sara Rice and Sgt. Derrick Naumann say in a lawsuit filed Friday in Minneapolis federal court that they were threatened with arrest and prosecution by Mille Lacs County if they exercised their right to police the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe reservation.

In addition to the county, Mille Lacs County Attorney Joseph Walsh and Sheriff Brent Lindgren are also named as defendants. The complaint was filed by attorney Marc Slonim with Ziontz Chestnut in Seattle.

The tribe says it has inherent sovereign authority to form a police force and allow its officers to investigate crime within its reservation.

Tribal officers also have inherent sovereign authority to apprehend crime suspects and release them to jurisdictions with criminal prosecutorial authority, according to the lawsuit.

“The Band has authorized its law enforcement officers to make arrests and to carry handguns, other firearms, and other weaponry for their personal protection and the protection of others,” the complaint states.

In 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs entered into a deputation agreement with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe giving its police officers authority to investigate federal crimes throughout the reservation and to arrest suspects, including those who are not members of the tribe.

According to the complaint, however, Mille Lacs County, Walsh and Lindgren assert that the tribe’s police officers have no authority within the reservation except on trust lands.

The reservation consists of 61,000 acres, with the United States owning about 3,500 acres of land in trust for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and tribe members.

The tribe says the county’s position violates federal law. Melanie Benjamin, its chief executive, said in a statement that the tribe “cannot wait another minute to address this emergency.”

“Our people are dying, our community is in crisis, and our neighbors are at risk. Gangs and drug dealers think our reservation is a police-free zone,” Benjamin said. “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.”

According to statistics published by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Mille Lacs County had the highest crime rate of any county in the state during 2015 and 2016.

Because of the alleged threats of arrest and prosecution if they exercise their law enforcement authority, Chief Rice and Naumann say they have been deterred from policing within the reservation.

They claim they have not responded to crime within the reservation – including drug trafficking, gang activity and violence – because of the county’s position.

Rice said in a statement, “As a police officer who took an oath to serve and protect our community, it is unbearable to have our hands tied by the Mille Lacs County leadership.”

County attorney Walsh also allegedly said that he will not prosecute criminal cases based on investigations conducted by tribal police officers.

“The County Sheriff and the County Attorney have instructed the Sheriff’s deputies not to arrest suspects apprehended by Band police officers exercising their inherent tribal and federally delegated law enforcement authority,” the lawsuit states.

The tribe says the county’s threats of prosecution not only violate the authority the tribe has under federal law, but also breach the deputation agreement and special law enforcement commissions issued to tribal officers.

Walsh said in a statement that he can’t comment on the pending litigation, but said he is “not aware of any attempt by anyone at Mille Lacs County to interfere with any inherent tribal or federal investigation conducted by Mille Lacs Band officers.”

“To my knowledge, the Band has not used its inherent tribal criminal authority to prosecute anyone in recent memory,” the county attorney said.

The Mille Lacs Indian Reservation is home to about 1,850 members. About 2,000 people work for the tribe’s government and commercial operations, including non-members.

The reservation was established in 1855 by a treaty with other tribes, including the Chippewa, and its boundaries have remained unchanged since its inception, according to the complaint.

In addition to attorney Slonim, the tribe is also represented by Mille Lacs Band Solicitor General Todd Matha.

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