Lake Co. takes over the Flathead Reservation police force under protest

Lake County Sheriff Don Bell said Monday that the county will begin “tracking costs and billing the state” for certain law enforcement services provided on the Flathead Reservation.

Bell’s statement is the latest development in a contentious back-and-forth between Gov. Greg Gianforte and Lake County officials over who has jurisdiction over tribal members on the reservation, which overlaps much of the county.

Lake County Commission Meeting-02 (copy)

Lake County Sheriff Don Bell publicly comments on the county’s intention to withdraw from Public Law 280 on December 12, 2022.

Antonio Ibarra Olivares

The conflict surrounds Public Law 280, which transferred legal authority on some reservations from the federal government to the state governments. In 1953, six states, not including Montana, initially had to pass the law without tribal consent. In those states, if a tribal member commits a crime on a reservation, state law enforcement — rather than the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the FBI — has jurisdiction.

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The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have operated under Public Law 280 since 1965, and they are the only tribes in Montana to do so. Since then, law enforcement in Lake County has exercised jurisdiction over crimes committed by tribal members on the Flathead Reservation.

According to a leading expert and law professor at UCLA, Public Law 280 has eroded tribal sovereignty nationwide, expanded state jurisdiction over tribes, and virtually eliminated federal criminal authority on tribal lands. Carole Goudberg. However, the federal government has not appropriated any money—for things like police departments, prisons, or courts—to states that have enacted Public Law 280.

While states largely welcomed the ability to police tribes in the 1960s, attitudes have since changed, largely due to costs.

Lake County has said in recent years that Public Law 280 costs taxpayers about $4 million annually, and that the county can no longer afford to pay for it.

“I took an oath to protect this community,” Sheriff Bell said in an email statement Monday, “and I want the community to know that revoking PL280’s authorization does not change the Sheriff’s Office’s response to crime and disorder in the province. .”

The county initiated a withdrawal from the agreement, which would transfer criminal jurisdiction over tribal members on the Flathead Reservation to the state.

The withdrawal was set to take effect Monday, and county leaders expected the governor to issue a proclamation recognizing it.

But Gianforte’s legal counsel told county leaders last week that the state has not received the official notice of withdrawal from the commissioners and therefore will not issue a proclamation.

“Without receipt of that resolution, the Governor’s obligation to issue a proclamation does not take effect,” the Governor’s General Counsel Anita Milanovich wrote on May 16. “As such, I must conclude that a proclamation from the governor is inappropriate at this time.”

Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker told Lee Montana on Monday that it was unclear what consequences the governor would face if he did not issue a proclamation. He said commissioners sent the governor a notice of withdrawal via certified mail, which requires a signature upon receipt.

“We believe this is a tactic that (the governor’s office) is using to buy time to see if they can resolve this,” Decker said.

The governor’s office declined to comment. And the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes have hesitated to publicly address the issue.


Lake County Commission Chairman Gale Decker comments before he and other commissioners cast their vote to withdraw from Public Law 280, a federal law that defines criminal jurisdiction over tribal members within reservation boundaries, during a meeting in the Lake County Courthouse on Jan. 3. 2023.


In the meantime, Decker said law enforcement agencies in Lake County will continue to exercise jurisdiction under Public Law 280, as they have since the 1960s.

“But we are doing it under protest,” he said, adding that the county plans to collect and document the costs associated with Public Law 280 and send a monthly bill to the state.

However, it remains unclear whether the state will be obliged to pay these bills. Last November a judge ruled that it was the legislature’s job to reimburse the county — although that ruling occurred before the county formally withdrew from the agreement.

Decker said maintaining public safety remains a priority for county leaders and law enforcement officials.

“We’re exercising (jurisdiction) because the FBI and the state have said they can’t or won’t do it, and someone has to continue to exercise jurisdiction,” Decker said. “We’ll keep doing it until someone else says, ‘We can and we will take over.’”

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