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Defining the crime problems: New state law enforcement officials learn about area opioid abuse, violence against Indigenous women

BEMIDJI--In his newly released budget proposal, new Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced recommendations to combat some of the state's urgent public safety issues.

Ron Leyba, a Red Lake Nation Criminal Investigator (center), speaks during a press event Friday as Michael LaRoque, (right), director of public safety with White Earth Police Department, and John Harrington, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (left) in Bemidji. Several law enforcement agencies came together in Bemidji to discuss the threat posed by heroin and opioids in Minnesota and violence against American Indian women. (Annalise Braught | Bemidji Pioneer)
Ron Leyba, a Red Lake Nation Criminal Investigator (center), speaks during a press event Friday as Michael LaRoque, (right), director of public safety with White Earth Police Department, and John Harrington, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (left) in Bemidji. Several law enforcement agencies came together in Bemidji to discuss the threat posed by heroin and opioids in Minnesota and violence against American Indian women. (Annalise Braught | Bemidji Pioneer)
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BEMIDJI-In his newly released budget proposal, new Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced recommendations to combat some of the state's urgent public safety issues.

And to better pinpoint where those proposed dollars are most essential, new Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington is visiting regional areas to research specific needs. On Friday, he traveled to Bemidji, where he met with several representatives from the region's law enforcement agencies.

"This was primarily a listening session for me," Harrington said after the meeting. "We gave some information about the governor's upcoming budget, with new initiatives to work on the opioid abuse and the Indigenous women's task force. What I came here to do was listen to the experts up here and learn what needs they have."

Both the opioid epidemic and violence toward Indigenous women have been ongoing issues for Bemidji area law enforcement agencies.

Minnesota reported 395 opioid-involved deaths in 2016, an increase from 330 fatalities in 2015, the most recent years for which statistics are available.

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According to information from the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Walz is recommending $1.24 million be appropriated from the state's opioid stewardship fund per year and a one-time appropriation of $406,070 to support investigations of heroin and other drug crimes. Walz's proposal is to fund the efforts with new fees on opioid manufacturers, wholesalers and entities that handle controlled substances.

Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin described how U.S. Highways 2 and 71 are main entry points for narcotics.

"We had conversations about Bemidji being a hub, located in a region where we see a lot of the narcotics that come in by way of the two highways, and how it might be because of a lack of narcotics agencies in our area," Mastin said. "We talked about having more State Patrol for that highway interdiction to stop some of the narcotics coming to our region."

Officials also noted Friday how the drug issue extends beyond opioids and isn't just a law enforcement issue.

"While the governor's budget targets opioid abuse, what I heard today from local departments was how there's also a prevalence of methamphetamines, in addition to the opioids," Harrington said.

"We're shifting how we look at this, too," state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Superintendent Drew Evans said. "We're really looking at our drug problems from a public health standpoint."

In an effort to reduce violence against Native American women, Walz is also recommending $105,000 in 2020 and $45,000 in 2021 to convene a task force with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. According to the National Institute of Justice, 84 percent of Native American women will experience some level of violence in their lifetimes, ranging from sexual to physical violence. In recent years, Bemidji has had several high-profile domestic violence cases in which Indigenous women were killed.

"The task force formed is going to be a catalyst and a place to pool best practices. More importantly, it will help identify the problem," Harrington said. "In my experience as a cop, when you start putting the dots on a map, you can start seeing where the trend lines are, and it's a lot easier to start targeting where your resources need to be."

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"It has a framework right now in the legislation moving forward," Evans said. "That number isn't set in stone yet. But one thing they will be exploring are the barriers. There are 11 independent sovereign tribal nations, and each of them have their own ways of doing things. So, we'll be convening to talk through any challenges we may have and how we can work around that."

Harrington said the first two years will likely be dedicated to gathering the information and researching analysis before recommending initiatives for the Legislature to fund in the future.

In addition to Bemidji, agencies represented Friday were the Fond du Lac, Red Lake, White Earth and Leech Lake police departments, along with the Paul Bunyan Drug Task Force.

Related Topics: CRIME
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