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In the midst of drugs and violence, Mille Lacs Band rallies for police

Mille Lacs Band police cars sit outside the Minnesota Capitol Monday, Nov. 20, 2017, as band members and supporters gather before attending a rally inside in an attempt to get Mille Lacs County to renew a police cooperation agreement. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 3
Drummers open a Monday, Nov. 20, 2017, rally in the Minnesota Capitol in support of renewing a Mille Lacs Band policing agreement with Mille Lacs County. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 3
Mille Lacs Band supporters hold signs whle standing in front of an American Civil War flag in the Minnesota Capitol Monday, Nov. 20, 2017. They were protesting Mille Lacs County's withdrawal from a policing agreement with the band. Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 3

ST. PAUL — The Mille Lacs Indian Reservation is becoming a haven for drug dealers and other criminals, band members say.

"People now show up on our reservation because they believe it is a police-free zone," band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin told about 100 at a Minnesota State Capitol Rally Monday, Nov. 20.

Mille Lacs County and the band disagree whether tribal police should have jurisdiction on most of the reservation. In June of 2016, the county ended a police cooperation agreement with the band, an action Benjamin and other band supporters want reversed.

Gov. Mark Dayton has ordered the county and band to enter mediation, which is scheduled to begin next Monday. But the county board has not approved the approach, so whether talks resume remains unclear.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose department oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, got into the act last Friday when he visited the reservation and county officials. Earlier, a deputy interior secretary wrote to county officials, saying they were wrong in saying band police have little authority.

Also, the band is taking the county to federal court over the dispute.

Benjamin said in an interview that the county has offered the band a new agreement, but is in unacceptable. She said, for instance, the county would require it to be notified when Benjamin goes to Washington, D.C. The band is a sovereign nation, she said, and the county has no right to make such demands.

While the dispute goes on, there have been 66 drug overdoses on the reservation, Benjamin said, 13 of them fatal.

Tribal police cannot make arrests for serious crimes because county officials will not prosecute them.

The county no longer allows tribal officers to be dispatched by the county 911 center.

With the end of the agreement, tribal officers are limited to investigating minor crimes that tribal court can handle, and other crimes in a small area. They cannot use the county jail or ask the county attorney to file charges.

While the county has hired six new sheriff's deputies, the band's police force has fallen by 10, to 22. Benjamin said officers do not want to work for a force with little authority.

Benjamin and Rep. Peggy Flanagan, D-St. Louis Park, said the Legislature needs to change state law to help Mille Lacs and other tribes that could face similar situations. The Legislature does not return to session until Feb. 20

The Mille Lacs County board unanimously voted last year to end the cooperative agreement with the band.

Mille Lacs County Administrator Pat Oman said at the time that "it is clear that tribal government prioritized tribal law over and above Minnesota law and its cooperative relationship with Mille Lacs County."

The agreement had been in effect for 25 years and was refreshed in 2008.

Dayton has told the two sides to enter mediation to settle the disagreement and earlier this month the county board voted to table that request.

Dayton arranged for retired Judge Arthur Boylan to conduct medication activities. Band leaders said the governor's office would handle mediation expenses through donations, but county leaders said state law bans the county from accepting such donations.

The county board could reconsider the medication proposal Tuesday.

In a letter to the county, Dayton said he would look at actions by the state if county officials do not reinstate the agreement.

He said the lack of a pact is "intolerable and needs to be resolved.... An inadequate response to serious crimes being committed in your county, when you have insisted on taking complete responsibility for the law enforcement previously provided by tribal police, is dangerously irresponsible and morally indefensible."

Much of the dispute is about how big the reservation is. The county maintains it is about 4,000 acres, while the band and the Interior Department say it is 61,000 acres.

About 2,300 American Indians live on the reservation.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.