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Minnesota Senate panel greenlights Prairie Island push to ensure tribal police authority

Jessie Stomski Seim, general counsel for the Prairie Island Indian Community, testifies before the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — A Minnesota Senate panel on Wednesday, March 13, advanced a proposal to let the Prairie Island Indian Community maintain a police department without approval from a county sheriff.

The bill would change existing law that requires tribes to sign a mutual-aid agreement with the county sheriff's department before they can set up a police department.

While the tribe already has a police department and works well with Goodhue County, supporters of the bill said it was key to ensuring tribal sovereignty and the tribal police department's authority to enforce state criminal law on reservation lands.

“It’s about eliminating the risk that a county and a tribe get into some disagreements and the county having the trump card," said Jessie Stomski Seim, general counsel for the Prairie Island Indian Community. “One has the upper hand and the ability to turn off the lights of the other."

Tribal leaders and the Prairie Island police chief supported the measure, saying it could help ensure they're not hamstrung in their efforts, while a representative from the state sheriffs' association said it could lead to a lack of accountability for those who disagree with tribal officers.

Executive Director of the Minnesota Sheriffs Association Bill Hutton said the measure could pose problems in accountability for non-tribal members who enter into situations with Prairie Island Police but can't vote to replace a top law enforcement official or put forward a candidate to replace an ineffective leader.

“What is my recourse at that moment?” Hutton said.

The Senate Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety passed the measure on a voice vote. The measure moves now to the Minnesota Senate.

One member of the committee raised questions about similar mutual-aid agreements that exist between county sheriffs and tribes around the state and said lawmakers could consider a broader approach.

“At least based on what I’m hearing right now, I’d support a statewide change” Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said.