WILLISTON — The FBI’s first new office in more than three decades is positioned to provide support for law enforcement stretched thin in Williston, and at the same time allow agents in other North Dakota offices to focus more on handling crime on Native American reservations, FBI director James Comey said Monday during a visit to Fort Berthold and Williston.
Tribal leaders and law enforcement told Comey the need for federal help on reservations is desperate, citing overwhelming increases in drug activity and violence.
“It’s no secret that we struggle with the advent of crime, over the past seven or eight years we’ve gotten a little bit desperate,” said Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Mark Fox. “The excess of crime on Fort Berthold is literally killing our people and tearing our people apart.”
Although there are no plans in place for an FBI office on a reservation, Comey said the three agents who arrived in Williston a year ago are expected to lighten the workload for offices such as those in Minot and Bismarck, which are responsible for much of the federal policing in the region’s reservations.
“We’re going to look at the effect Williston has on the existing resources,” he said.
A meeting with tribal leaders, which was closed to the media, also resulted in talk of reviving a task force dubbed “Operation Safe Trails,” a collaborative effort between federal and local authorities to crack down on crime on reservations.
Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who has been vocal in a push for more federal resources in western North Dakota, continued to advocate for an on-site base on tribal lands.
“We are at a crisis point. When I talk to tribal elders, tribal leadership, they are begging for help… We need a coordinated law enforcement push which is capable of meeting the jurisdictional challenges of Indian Country,” she said. “The smartest thing for anyone to do is base out of Indian Country.”
During the afternoon’s ribbon-cutting, Comey reiterated his stance that the Williston office will likely allow for a tighter focus on reservations by agents based in Minot. “We can get more than double the work done by having agents in these two places,” he said.
The Williston outpost is the first new FBI office to open in more than 30 years, driven by a rising population and accompanying crime.
Mayor Howard Klug credited politicians for noticing a need, and working to fill it.
“They said we know that you’re in trouble here, you’re outmanned, outgunned,” he said.
Senator John Hoeven acknowledged the amount of work and expense that instituting a new office entailed, but said the need for federal help still exists.
“This was not a small ask, this was a big ask,” he said, adding, “We’re continuing to make the case that we need more resources in the energy patch. We see this as a team effort.”
Local law enforcement and numerous local and state officials, including Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Wayne Stenehjem, Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, senators John Hoeven and Heitkamp attended the event in Williston.