White Earth to get federal crime-fighting help

White Earth
The U.S. Department of Justice announces Friday that White Earth will be the first reservation in the country to be awarded a shared jurisdiction. It means tribal, state and federal authorities will now share responsibility for investigating and prosecuting crimes.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Federal help to fight crime is coming to a northern Minnesota Indian reservation.

The U.S. Department of Justice announces Friday that White Earth will be the first reservation in the country to be awarded a shared jurisdiction. It means tribal, state and federal authorities will now share responsibility for investigating and prosecuting crimes. Federal jurisdiction at White Earth takes effect June 1.

Concurrent, or shared jurisdiction, was authorized when Congress passed the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010. The new federal agreement makes White Earth the only Minnesota reservation with shared jurisdiction, and the first reservation in the country to have a request for federal jurisdiction granted. Several other tribal petitions are being reviewed, a Justice Department official said.

The federal government was once the law on Minnesota Indian reservations. But in 1953, Congress passed Public Law 280, giving the state jurisdiction over reservation crimes in six states including Minnesota. That made the county sheriff the primary law enforcer on most reservations. Red Lake and Nett Lake kept federal jurisdiction.

The federal government also has primary jurisdiction over reservation crime in neighboring states like North Dakota and South Dakota.

"They're going to feel as though they have the kind of protections everybody in America should have."

The relationship between tribes and counties was sometimes bumpy. White Earth officials have long complained about justice delayed or denied for tribal members.

Those relationships are much improved, White Earth Attorney Joe Plumer said, partly because the involved parties have been meeting for months to discuss shared jurisdiction.

"I would say it's helped a great deal. I would say that we've been getting to know each other better, getting to understand each other so we can have a close working relationship," Plumer said. "Because in the future we're going to need that."

The new arrangement means tribal, county and federal investigators and prosecutors will need to work together.

The federal government already has authority to prosecute crimes such as drug trafficking on the White Earth Reservation. The new agreement expands federal jurisdiction to crimes such as murder, rape or felony assault.

Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole said the federal government will not be taking over law enforcement on the reservation. There's no additional funding for the operation. Cole said federal prosecutors will focus on high-impact cases.

"A particularly heinous child abuse case. A particularly violent murder," Cole said. "Things of that nature, where it may be a complicated case. It may be a long case; it may be a case that requires very sensitive work from law enforcement that we might be able to provide from the FBI."

Cole also anticipates the federal presence and increased collaboration means all types of crimes on the reservation will be less likely to fall through the cracks.

"You'll have two things that'll happen. One, the people who commit crimes know that they are in greater peril of getting caught. Two, the people who live on the tribal lands are going to feel safer," Cole said. "They're going to feel as though they have the kind of protections everybody in America should have."

Three counties, Mahomen , Clearwater and Becker all have jurisdiction over parts of the White Earth Reservation.

Becker County Attorney Mike Fritz said details of the shared jurisdiction still need to be worked out, but he is confident federal involvement at White Earth will improve public safety.

"Obviously, it's a positive. That's how we look at it here," Fritz said. "If the feds can come in and help and enhance public safety, we're all in favor."

Fritz said it is unclear if the federal government will take enough cases to significantly reduce the county case load, but that by picking the right cases, the federal government could have a big impact on crime.

"Potentially what you would have here is that the true bad actors -- the violent offenders, the serious repeat offenders -- could be looking at a significantly longer sentence under the federal guidelines than that of the state," Fritz said.

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