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Mille Lacs tribal police have badges, guns, and no power

Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Interim Police Chief Sara Rice says a policing dispute with the county has had an impact on public safety on a reservation already grappling with a heroin epidemic.

Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Interim Police Chief Sara Rice says a policing dispute with the county has had an impact on public safety on a reservation already grappling with a heroin epidemic. City Pages

Bulletproof jacket — check.

Forty-caliber Glock — check.

Badge — check.

Jeff Schafer leaves a small plastic baggie of what he suspects is heroin on his desk, then walks out of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Police Department in Onamia and gets into a black, unmarked SUV on a sunny Thursday afternoon in November. He has everything he needs to do his job as a patrol officer today — except the authority to do it.

“Today is check day,” he says, or “per cap day.” It’s the day tribal band members get a cut of the revenue from Grand Casino, across the highway from the police department. Normally, that means an uptick in activity for police as members decide how to spend their monthly stipend. On a recent “per cap day,” four people overdosed.

Schafer drives northwest, through the wooded, hilly reservation that hugs the southern side of the serene, 200-square-mile Mille Lacs Lake.

Tribal patrol officer Jeff Schafer has been largely handcuffed by the policing fracas, unable to do most of his job for months now.

Tribal patrol officer Jeff Schafer has been largely handcuffed by the policing fracas, unable to do most of his job for months now. Abby Peterson

“Most are the Boyd family out here,” Schafer says as he drives past a cluster of well-spaced, decent houses. Families tend to stick together on the reservation, he explains.

“There’s Linda,” he says as he slows to wait for a Grand Casino shuttle bus to pick up a woman and take her to the casino. Band members can get a free ride to the casino, which, technically, they own. Elderly band members tend to use the shuttle the most, Schafer says.

He drives south to where land has been cleared and roads built to make way for 146 homes the band plans to build for members. It looks like a typical nascent suburb, with plenty of space between the lots. East of here, the older tribal housing is much tighter, more like a typical residential area. Officer Schafer prefers the space.

“The more they separate houses, the less problems between neighbors,” he says.

There’s less fighting now than when he began patrolling the reservation in 2002.

“When I started, everyone smoked a little weed and drank,” he says. He ran from call to call to call his first five years on the job. “We barely had time to write reports back then.”

He would park his patrol car at an intersection overlooking the older neighborhood, just waiting for the next dispatch.

Now the reservation is dealing with a heroin epidemic. The addicts are less interested in fighting. They get what Schafer calls “the nod,” where their head droops and they zone out. People on meth get cranked up, but the side effects are less obvious since the Mexican cartels started making it, Schafer says. So now there’s less fighting but more property crime, as junkies steal to feed their addiction.

While driving through the older neighborhood, Schafer spots a Mille Lacs County sheriff’s deputy named John knocking on the door of a house. The deputy sees Schafer, smiles, and waves. Schafer doesn’t know what the deputy is doing there; he didn’t hear the call on the scanner.

Normally, that probably would’ve been his call to take. But not anymore.

Schafer and his 26 colleagues on the tribal police force have been largely handcuffed — stripped of their policing power — by a bureaucratic battle between the band and the county.

While the two sides’ leaders duke it out in meetings, emails, and letters, tribal police officers like Schafer are left to do little more than watch the community of 2,500 they once policed. So he waits and he drives. For the next two hours, he won’t get a single call from the dispatcher, despite the fact he’s likely the closest cop to any call coming in.

Since July he’s been patrolling, but not really policing, with no end in sight.

II.

In late July, in the Mille Lacs County Courthouse 33 miles to the south, Schafer’s life working the beat ground to a halt.

Sara Rice says she tries to keep tribal officers' morale up, despite the fact they're unable to fully do their jobs.

Sara Rice says she tries to keep tribal officers' morale up, despite the fact they're unable to fully do their jobs.

There, the five-member Mille Lacs County Board of Commissioners voted to end a law enforcement agreement with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

State law allows Mille Lacs County and the band to share responsibility for law enforcement on the reservation, but only if they enter into an agreement. With no agreement, the tribal police force was stripped of its authority to enforce the law. Prior to the vote, the Mille Lacs Band’s police force, roughly 30 tribal cops and 10 county deputies, had one of the largest per capita presences in the country, with more than twice as many cops per person as Washington, D.C. The county’s vote to void the agreement effectively reduced it by 75 percent.

Suddenly, tribal cops could no longer apply for search warrants, conduct investigations, make traffic stops, or issue citations for violators of state law.

Cops had the same powers to make arrests as any ordinary citizen. If they used firearms to do so, and “caused fear in another of immediate bodily harm or death,” it could be a felony punishable by a mandatory three-year prison sentence.

So ended a delicate and sometimes contentious compromise between the county and the tribal police, one that had lasted 25 years and had put public safety above a longtime boundary dispute.

For all its messy consequences, the land fight is fairly simple: The band considers the reservation to be 61,000 acres created by an 1855 treaty between the Chippewa and U.S. The county sees it as just 4,000 acres held in trust, arguing that subsequent treaties and an 1889 law essentially dissolved the original reservation.

The discrepancy bubbled up again this summer, after the band decided to get the feds’ help in fighting crime.

Under the Tribal Law and Order Act, federal prosecutors can charge people with crimes in Indian country. Because federal crimes often have more significant penalties, the tribe knew it could use these prosecutions to put criminals away longer.

But where is Indian country? The county argued that the Mille Lacs Reservation — as defined by that 1855 treaty — no longer exists. The band disagreed. When the U.S. Department of Interior’s solicitor general weighed in, he affirmed that the reservation consists of the wider treaty boundaries.

And with that November 2015 opinion, the bureaucratic battle began.

“The whole dispute is over the federal government opinion that the reservation is intact, always has been, and the county’s fears about the consequences of that,” says Mille Lacs Band Solicitor General Todd Matha.

“That is one promise the [federal] government has managed to keep,” says Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band. “Our reservation has always existed. These few county commissioners are upset about the fact that the United States has actually kept that promise.”

For its part, Mille Lacs County has pointed to several other reasons for terminating the police agreement, not least of which was the band’s recent, unsuccessful attempt to change state law and gain criminal jurisdiction without a county police agreement.

Indeed, Mille Lacs County Attorney Joe Walsh has said the boundary issue is just one of about 30 the county wants clarified in a new deal.

Matha believes the county’s resolution is rooted in irrational fears. He says a county commissioner told him the real worry is that the band might try to pass laws that affect (largely white) non-band members who live within the disputed reservation territory. “It’s just not true,” Matha says, explaining that non-Indians would have to agree to the laws, or commit a crime that is catastrophic to the tribe, like burning down the reservation.

Matha suspects fishing and hunting rights are also a concern. “I don’t know why,” he says. “Fishing isn’t a criminal matter.”

During her July swearing-in speech, Benjamin accused the county of attacking the band, risking public safety, and trying to destroy the tribal police. She said Mille Lacs County officials tried to convince other counties to end their agreements with the band, and to get the state to jerk her officers’ licenses.

The decision to replace her 32 tribal officers with 10 county deputies who don’t know the community would jeopardize public safety, Benjamin predicted.

Tribal police say her prediction has come true.

III.

“You can’t have much pride when you’re doing this,” says Jeff Schafer.

While the standoff continues, when someone calls 911 in Schafer’s district, he and his fellow officers no longer get dispatched by Mille Lacs County. Instead, a sheriff’s deputy responds.

Tribal police monitor the county police radio, although the county doesn’t always use radios to communicate. They can then go to the scene, secure it, and assist deputies, since they’re licensed Minnesota police officers. But they can’t do much else.

“It has had an impact on public safety overall,” Interim Tribal Police Chief Sara Rice says. “Trying to combat a heroin epidemic and people bringing that stuff onto the reservation is very hard when you don’t have a cooperative agreement.”

It’s hard even when you do, she says. She can’t point to a specific instance where the county deputies didn’t arrive soon enough, but she believes response times are likely slower now, since deputies usually have to travel farther than the tribal police. She has no access to their data, however.

The county prosecutor, Walsh, says response times have not slowed, to his knowledge.

Rice’s officers still work 24/7, but they can’t enforce the laws on crimes that would wind up in county court, everything from traffic violations to felonies. They can enforce tribal law — mostly civil, regulatory matters — over tribal members, but nothing that could bring jail time, since the band doesn’t have a jail.

The tribal police now have no authority over non-band members on the reservation, even though many live in cabins along the lake or frequent the casino.

If a tribal officer suspects someone is driving drunk, they could pull the car over, but then they’d have to contact the county to get a deputy there to decide whether to arrest the driver. The tribal cop could only stand by and wait. Secure the scene, twiddle his thumbs.

If a heroin overdose is announced on the radio, a tribal cop can go to the address, then radio the county to send an ambulance, firefighter, or some type of emergency responder.

Then they can wait, and, if asked, assist sheriff’s deputies.

When the county yanked the agreement in July, it also unplugged the tribal police from the county’s computer dispatch records management system, so they lost access to past police records, and had to do everything on paper. If the tribal officers had to go to court on an old case, the county made copies of computer records for them.

“Not being able to utilize those tools really hindered our ability to do proper police work,” Rice said. “To go back to paper — it’s shocking.”

Officer Schafer said he’s sure some criminals have gotten away because officers couldn’t get into the computer system.

“Those cases just basically went away because they won’t share the information with us.”

Before the tribe recently paid $313,000 for a new records management system, Schafer says their computers were reduced to “$5,000 email machines.”

IV.

One day during this stalemate, county deputies were trying to find and arrest a man on the reservation when a tribal officer arrived on the scene.

He asked who they were looking for, and then informed the deputies that the suspect was sitting in a car parked kitty-corner behind the deputies.

“And he was armed,” Mille Lacs Band Solicitor General Todd Matha says.

That lack of knowledge, the inability to spot a person walking on the side of the road and know them by name, is what most concerns tribal officials. The tribal officers know who lives where, who’s dating who, where to find people.

Often when Rice would get a call on patrol, she’d say, “Whose house is it?” or “Who’s calling this in?” and know exactly where to go.

“Especially if somebody’s overdosing or a domestic is in progress, it’s very important that we get there ASAP,” Rice said.

While Rice is the only band member on the force, many of her employees have been with the department for years, and they are conducting “meaningful community policing,” Matha says.

“[Community policing] has been diminished and supplanted by county officers,” he says.

During her swearing-in speech, band leader Benjamin pointed to the national debate over racial profiling and police shootings, saying, “Every band member knows that when we leave the reservation, justice can depend on the color of your skin,” she says.

“Traffic stops can be impacted by whether or not you have tribal plates on your car. But on the reservation, most of our tribal officers know us. They know our families. They know our kids. Many know our culture and are part of our community.”

County deputies may not know, as Schafer does, that the young man walking up the hill, Eddie, looks a lot like his brother, Ernie. The deputies may not be familiar with a woodsy area they used to call “Felony Flats” – where Schafer used to have to chase down kids. They may not know that the most prevalent gangs are Native Mob and Native Style or recognize their distinct tattoos, gang signs, and colors — or know how to step in and prevent trouble between rival members.

They may not know that Gail Tyson, 62, who’s walking by the lake today in a Care Bears sweatshirt, has lived on the reservation most of her life, and often calls the police when she thinks kids are stealing fencing near her house to buy drugs. (Schafer isn’t so sure about that.) With a big, crooked, toothy grin, she proudly tells Schafer how she tells people on drugs they’re “ugly looking.”

“We’ve developed relationships in this community,” Schafer says. “The new young guys they’ve hired don’t know the community; they’re not as invested.”

Walsh, the Mille Lacs County prosecutor, said the sheriff’s office doesn’t engage in racial profiling, but state law enforcement officers can’t issue civil/regulatory citations to band members on trust lands, so they often have to ask if an offender is a band member.

He said the sheriff’s office would welcome the chance to issue them without doing so, but they know it would be offensive to the sovereignty of the band.

Sgt. James West, a drug investigator with long, sandy blond hair who’s worked for the band for 13 years, says the county deputies simply aren’t as proactive, and don’t understand the culture.

“There’s no compassion or emotion,” West says.

He’s been hamstrung since July, since most drug crimes are felonies that would have to be prosecuted in state court.

“It’s not a fun situation to be in,” he says.

When a call comes in, his officers know where to look for suspects.

“People don’t really have permanent addresses around here,” he says. County deputies don’t have that working knowledge.

“When they try to work alone, they get frustrated,” Schafer said.

Rice says it’s disheartening for her officers to see a “lack of effort when it comes to investigations” by the county cops. It could be lack of experience, or “lack of care factor,” she said.

The county prosecutor, Walsh, disagrees, saying the quality of law enforcement is “directly comparable” to the band. The county has covered the additional territory with emergency moves such as canceling vacations for all deputies and hiring more deputies — six so far, with four more to come, according to Mille Lacs County Administrator Pat Oman.

Two of the new county deputies are being hired with federal grants that will last three years, but the additional hires will cost the county more than $500,000 the first year.

“Mille Lacs County remains committed to providing excellent law enforcement services to all of its citizens,” Walsh said.

Those county deputies are overseen by Mille Lacs County Sheriff Brent Lindgren. A 2008 photograph of Lindgren recently began circulating online, showing him wearing a “Native Pride” baseball cap. It was considered disrespectful because he is white, not Native American. Lindgren did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

One of his deputies also made waves when a high-speed chase in the county ended with him “accidentally” shooting an unarmed white man in June. The deputy said his weapon went off as he switched hands to use his public address system. The suspect was arrested on drug charges, and the deputy was placed on leave during an internal investigation by the department, and then the state.

The deputy received additional firearms training, and physical and mental evaluations, before returning to work. Tribal police declined to comment about this incident on the record. Privately, some point to it as if to say, “And they don’t think we’re good enough?”

V.

You might think being a cop without the authority to do much would be a welcome break. A chance to enjoy easy, low-stress days, watching county deputies scramble to cover your turf.

You’d be wrong. Mille Lacs officers want this bureaucratic pissing match to end so they can get back to work.

Michael Ritter, a tribal investigator for almost 10 years, thinks his is the best-trained agency in a 100-mile radius.

“I’d love to get back to being busy,” he says.

Rice says she tries to keep morale up, stay positive, and focus on the community.

“It’s hard to be a cop and not be able to do your job to the fullest capacity,” she says.

“We have 27 officers just sitting by trying to do the best they can.”

All the while the heroin keeps flowing.

“The abuse of the drug leads to other crime — stealing, burglaries, elder abuse,” she says. “It is so prevalent and it’s so in your face that’s it’s hard for police officers to just stand by and not pursue information that could lead to a productive prosecution.”

Chris Sailors, a criminal defense attorney in Mille Lacs County, says he’s seen a substantial drop in the number of new charges against band members since the county took over law enforcement.

“Either crime stopped up there or something’s going on,” he says. “I think it’s too much of a coincidence.”

Officer Schafer says tribal police used to submit as many cases to the prosecutor as the rest of the county combined.

Walsh says he has no stats on prosecutions since July because his office only keeps county-wide statistics and he doesn’t have partial-year prosecution stats. He says he hasn’t seen any “definitive, overall decline” in cases submitted for charging from Mille Lacs Band trust lands.

“Many crimes — from petty misdemeanors to serious felonies — have been submitted to the Mille Lacs County Attorney’s Office for charging after investigation by the sheriff’s office and other law enforcement agencies such as the State Patrol,” he says.

August to October is a small sample size to determine the number of cases submitted, he adds, especially when investigations can take a long time.

VI.

The two sides are scarcely talking anymore.

“I don’t call it ‘negotiations’ any longer,” Matha says. “The county has essentially — isn’t really bargaining or negotiating in good faith.”

Walsh says the county gave the band a proposal in September, and on October 17 Matha rejected it, calling it offensive. The band countered with a deal similar to the old one, with changes that didn’t address the county’s concerns and seeking more authority for tribal officers to make arrests outside of tribal jurisdiction, Walsh says.

Matha says the band is trying to get its officers deputized federally, making each cop more like a Bureau of Indian Affairs officer, with criminal jurisdiction through federal law.

Jessica Intermill, a St. Paul attorney who focuses on tribal and Indian law, says these types of policing agreements allow first responders to do their jobs regardless of who needs help.

Boundary disputes are culturally, historically, and politically relevant for tribes because they’re seeking to enforce promises the U.S. made 200 years ago, she says.

“The opposition tends to be very fear-based,” she says, with people afraid tribes will start seizing land from property owners, or build a casino on every corner. Those fears are largely unfounded. “The Supreme Court has already put very strict boundaries around what tribes can do to non-Indians.”

The DOJ offered mediation services, and senior conciliation specialist Kenith Bergeron, who had been involved in the Philando Castile matter, set up tentative dates to meet with each side. But the county ultimately refused to participate: According to Matha, Bergeron drove up to visit with county employees and was told they were all in training that day, and unable to meet; then he found the sheriff sitting in his office. 

Walsh says he was aware of Bergeron’s visit, but the mediator “never, at any time, called me or asked to see me.”

Benjamin said the county declined mediation and wanted negotiations kept confidential.

“The county is seeking an exemption from its obligations under the Public Disclosure Act to ensure confidentiality,” she wrote.

Walsh said county officials believe the best way to iron this out is through confidential negotiations “to focus on solving real problems and avoid posturing for political purposes.”

And the county doesn’t consider the Justice Department impartial: When county officials asked the feds about the Interior Department’s opinion of the boundary dispute, they got no answers. Walsh says the federal attorneys knew the opinion would side with the tribe, and “deliberately misled” the county “on orders from Washington, D.C.”

Walsh says he’d welcome the tribal police back if they can negotiate through the county’s 30 county issues.

“Mille Lacs County has not, and will not, ask the Mille Lacs Band to give any land held by the band, whether in trust or in fee ownership,” he said. “Mille Lacs County recently chose not to appeal the Mille Lacs Band’s placement of several significant parcels into trust, which the county hoped would improve the relationship between the band and the county.”

While the band is open to negotiations, Benjamin has said “we will never compromise our reservation boundary.”

Matha says no tribe would make concessions when it comes to its land, which has been whittled away over centuries.

“The band is never going to be negotiating away its land base,” he says. “So if it rests on that… there’s not really good-faith negotiation.”

Meanwhile, Schafer returns to his office and tests that baggie of white powder that hotel workers found in a nightstand and suspected was drugs. He runs a few tests before determining it’s not heroin. This time. Rather than drive around for a few more hours and wait for calls that won’t come, he’s ready to call it a day.