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Interior secretary visits Mille Lacs, discusses law enforcement crisis

Mille Lacs Band elected officials welcomed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke for an impromptu visit Thursday and Friday to the Mille Lacs Reservation to discuss the current law enforcement crisis.

Secretary Ryan Zinke tweeted a photo from his visit to the Mille Lacs Reservation. Source: Twitter
Secretary Ryan Zinke tweeted a photo from his visit to the Mille Lacs Reservation. Source: Twitter

Mille Lacs Band elected officials welcomed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke for an impromptu visit Thursday and Friday to the Mille Lacs Reservation to discuss the current law enforcement crisis.

The visit came on the heels of a Nov. 8 letter from the U.S. Department of the Interior to Mille Lacs County, in which the county was told the band's reservation was never diminished or disestablished, and that Mille Lacs County officers should "under no circumstances" impede the tribal police from conducting investigations in accordance with their authority under the band's inherent law enforcement authority or federal law.

After being welcomed by Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin and District 1 Representative Sandra Blake, Zinke and his staff met in a closed session with band officials and discussed the law enforcement crisis facing the band.

"The county's decision to revoke our law enforcement agreement has tied the hands of our tribal police officers at a time when the opioid epidemic has been ravaging our communities," Benjamin stated in the meeting, according to a news release. "In 2015, we had seven overdoses. Since the county revoked the agreement in July 2016, we have had 66 overdoses on the Mille Lacs Reservation, 13 of them fatal."

"Unfortunately, drug dealers see the reservation as a 'police-free' zone," stated Chief Sara Rice of the Tribal Police Department to Zinke. "They know we can longer arrest suspects because the sheriff won't book them and the county attorney won't prosecute them."

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Describing himself as a "fixer," Zinke spent time discussing several different ways the interior department could help support the band to bring an end to the law enforcement standoff with Mille Lacs County.

Benjamin described the meeting as very positive.

"Secretary Zinke wanted to hear from us about this issue and listened intently, and promised to do what he can to help," stated Benjamin in the release.

Immediately following the meeting, Zinke and his staff joined about 800 Mille Lacs Band members for the annual Community Feast.

Following a ride-along Friday morning around the reservation with Rice, Zinke tweeted, "Great to be w/ @millelacsband Tribal Law enforcement and hear about challenges. We stand together to fight the #opioidcrisis & are committed to upholding our treaty obligations for public safety both on and off the reservation. Thx to @USIndianAffairs Dir and OSJ for joining."

The band has had a law enforcement agreement with Pine County since 2004. A new agreement was signed in May of this year.

Accompanying Zinke in his delegation were Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Bryan Rice, BIA Deputy Associate Director of the Division of Drug Enforcement Charles Addington, Chief of Staff Scott Hommel and several BIA law enforcement officials and security detail.

Related Topics: MILLE LACS COUNTY
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