Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Files Lawsuit Against Mille Lacs County

Published

Chief Executive says, “County officials have been holding the safety of tribal members hostage for 16 months.”

Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin announced today that the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe (MLB) has filed a complaint in federal district court against Mille Lacs County, County Attorney Joseph Walsh and County Sheriff Brent Lindgren. The complaint alleges that the County, Mr. Walsh and Sheriff Lindgren have prevented Band police officers from exercising police powers within the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation, violating federal law and contributing to an epidemic of drug-related overdoses and deaths.

MLB Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin said, “We 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. 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."

Since July 2016, when Mille Lacs County revoked a Joint Powers Agreement under which Band police held authority to enforce state law on the Mille Lacs Reservation, County officials have threatened Band police with arrest if they attempt to carry out law enforcement duties outside of lands held in trust for the Band. The County has exacerbated the public safety void created by those threats by refusing to arrest certain offenders, or prosecute certain cases against those arrested, where Band officers were involved.

In 2015 and 2016, Mille Lacs County has the highest crime rate of all 87 counties in Minnesota, according to the Uniform Crime Report published by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

“We had 32 tribal police officers who knew our families and our culture. The County chose to replace them with 6 new deputies, who don’t know our community,” said Mille Lacs Band District 1 Representative Sandra Blake, whose legislative district includes the reservation in Mille Lacs County. “Our police have been handcuffed from doing their jobs and we will not stand for this any longer,” Blake said.

The situation has reached crisis proportions over the past year due to an explosion in drug-related crimes. Since the County revoked the law enforcement agreement, the Band has seen a dramatic increase in drug crimes, drug overdoses and deaths due to overdose.

In 2015, there were 7 overdoses on the reservation. Since the County revoked the agreement in July, 2016, there have been 66 overdoses on the Mille Lacs Reservation, 13 of them fatal.

“This situation has been extremely frustrating for the people of the Band and the Tribal Police," MLB member and Chief of Police Sara Rice said. “Our Police Officers and I are licensed through the Minnesota P.O.S.T. Board and have to abide by the same standards as every police officer in Minnesota. We are highly trained officers with decades of combined experience. 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.”

Chief Executive Benjamin said the County's termination of the agreement was an irrational effort to force the Band to yield in a decades-old dispute about the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation’s legal existence and boundaries. “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."

The county's position "has no basis in law," according to the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the U.S. Department of Interior. Harry Humbert, who serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Safety, Resource Protection and Emergency Services, wrote in a November 8 letter to Mille Lacs County Attorney Joe Walsh that "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."

Humbert noted that tribal officers with a Special Law Enforcement Commission (SLEC) issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs are fully authorized under federal law to pursue and investigate crimes on the reservation, and advised Walsh, “Mille Lacs County law enforcement officers should under no circumstances impede SLECs from conducting investigations in accordance with their authority under the Band's inherent law enforcement authority or Federal law.”

At the request of Governor Dayton, the Band plans to follow through with an attempt at mediation with Mille Lacs County, scheduled for November 27, 2017. Band Solicitor General Todd Matha hopes the lawsuit will get the underlying dispute about the reservation boundary off the negotiating table, “so that on November 27 the two parties can focus solely on law enforcement and the restoration of law and order on the reservation.”

“We tried mediation with the County for several months in 2017, and after stalling they kept putting worse deals on the table. We are bringing action in court at this time because of the urgency of this problem,” Benjamin said. “We are willing to try mediation to resolve it, but based on our past experiences, we have no guarantee the County will not cancel mediation or negotiate in bad faith. We cannot wait another minute to act. Every family has been impacted by this crisis."

In its complaint, the Band asks the court to declare that, as a matter of federal law, the Band has inherent sovereign authority to establish a police department and to authorize Band police officers to investigate violations of federal, state and tribal law within the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation as established under its 1855 Treaty.

The complaint also seeks a declaration that under the Deputation Agreement between the Band and the Bureau of Indian Affairs as well as the Special Law Enforcement Commissions, the Band 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. The Band’s complaint also requests that the Court stop the County from taking any actions that interfere with the authority of Band police officers.