Lawsuit: Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe cops stifled, police chief threatened with arrest

For more than a year, the Mille Lacs Tribal Police have been powerless to enforce the law in much of the reservation.

For more than a year, the Mille Lacs Tribal Police have been powerless to enforce the law in much of the reservation. City Pages

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe's tribal police officers have been stripped of much of their ability to enforce the law for more than a year.

Under Minnesota law, tribal police and the Mille Lacs County Sheriff’s Office have long partnered to fight crime on the reservation. But in July 2016, county commissioners voted to revoke the two agencies’ agreement to collaborate.

As a result, state-licensed tribal police were left without the authority to investigate crimes on the vast majority of reservation lands. They are no longer allowed to arrest non-Indians, even if they commit crimes against Indians on Indian land. They must not enforce state law at all, or take anyone to jail.

"It's not a good thing when criminals know and have seen for themslves that nothing's happening," says Mille Lacs Police Chief Sara Rice. "It's undermining tribal law enforcement when we're actively making traffic stops where there are drugs involved, and the criminal sees that nothing happens to them. So of course they're going to return."

County Attorney Joseph Walsh has threatened tribal officers, including Chief Rice, with arrest and prosecution if they attempt to overstep these boundaries, according to a lawsuit filed Friday by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

The county’s lead prosecutor has also promised to ignore criminal cases built by tribal police against non-band members. And Sheriff Brent Lindgren has ordered his deputies not to arrest suspects apprehended by tribal police, according to the suit.

Ever since, crime on the reservation has skyrocketed, says band chief executive Melanie Benjamin during an "Uncuff our Cops" rally at the state capitol on Monday. In 2015 there were 15 overdoses on the reservation; in 2016 there were 66. 

"We've experienced this crisis where people now show up on our reservation because they believe it's a police-free zone," Benjamin says. "Not only are they bringing the drugs in, the gang members are showing up. We have young girls violated. We're not going to let this happen anymore."

The underlying disagreement between the band and the county stems from a land dispute over a 200-year-old treaty.

In 2015, the band sought to enlist federal prosecutors to assist with Mille Lacs’ highest-in-the-state crime rate, because criminals convicted of federal crimes in Indian country face longer sentences. The county pushed back, disputing the boundaries of the band’s territory.

Instead of the 61,000 acres designated for the Mille Lacs Reservation by the 1855 treaty between the Chippewa and the United States, the county asserts the band has legal jurisdiction over just 3,572 acres within the reservation, designated “trust lands” held for the band by the United States.

Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Interior sided with the band, affirming that the federal government recognizes the boundaries of the reservation as they were established in 1855. The feds ordered county law enforcement to quit interfering with tribal cops trying to do their jobs.

On November 8, Deputy Assistant Secretary Harry Humbert of the Department of the Interior reiterated that same opinion in a letter to County Attorney Walsh.

"As the County is aware, the Solicitor of the Department of the Interior issued a legal opinion in November, 2015 affirming that the Band's resrevation remains intact despite over 100 years of encroachment by non-members and the unlawful sale of the Band's lands by the United States," Humbert wrote. "Therefore, the County's assertion that the Band's reservation has been diminished or disestablished has no basis in law and conflicts with the federal government's longstanding position." 

Nevertheless, the county and the band haven’t been able to negotiate a new agreement over joint policing powers. The lawsuit asks the court to recognize the Mille Lacs Band’s sovereign right to have its own police department police its own land.