Taser or Shoot First, Then Ask Questions Later?
RAPID CITY, S.D. - The Rapid City Police Department and the Pennington County Sheriff’s Department have been unfair in the racial profiling of Native Americans, particularly young Native American men. Rapid City Police and Pennington County Deputies are too quick to use force, do not seem to abide by any proper law enforcement continuum-of-force when arresting American Indians and many of the murders and unsolved deaths of Natives seem to be sloughed off, quickly solved without proper detective investigative work, or they end up in cold case status, so say a number of Natives who live in South Dakota familiar with this problem.
The communications specialist for the Rapid City Police Department, Brendyn Medina, however, said although there is a disproportionate amount of Native Americans involved with crimes in Rapid City and although only 10 percent of Rapid City and Pennington County is made up of American Indians - while those incarcerated in the Rapid City Jail account for 50 percent of all inmates - much of this disparity can be blamed on the high unemployment, poverty, destitution, alcoholism and drug abuse, along with domestic problems that plague the Native American populace. Meantime, the Pennington County Sheriff said that local and federal programs have been initiated to help remove social problems local Native Americans are facing.
“I’ve worked on so many individual cases where Indians have been murdered for no reason,” said Canupa Gluha Mani, leader of the Strong Heart Warrior Society, an activist group based in South Dakota that fights for the rights of Native Americans of all tribes. “Let’s just call it one thing, though, it’s ethnic cleansing. They want all the Native people to die,” he added.
“It has gotten worse under Donald Trump,” Gluha Mani continued. “He’s trying to eliminate the reservations and open them up to free enterprise, to corporate America. Executive Order 13503, which Barack Obama signed into effect, calls for the elimination of Indian reservations and allows corporations to drill for oil, mine for uranium and ores, and rape our reservation lands. It also works against the poor grandmas and grandpas of the White Race. It will take away their Medicaid benefits and their families will not be able to take care of them properly so they will end up in nursing homes where they’ll be used like pin cushions for the pharmaceutical industry - just like human Guinea pigs,” Gluha Mani said.
A case in which the Strong Heart Warrior Society is currently working on, keeping after local law enforcement for real answers and doing some investigative digging on the part of Strong Heart members, as well, involves the early February, 2016, cryptic death of Mariah High Hawk, who was found deceased underneath a utility trailer, Strong Heart’s top leader contended.
“A private investigator Strong Heart has been working with gave us new information that Mariah High Hawk’s boyfriend, Andrew Boyd, killed her. And in a confession to police, Boyd even admitted this. The P.I. volunteered his own services as part of trying to help the family. The Rapid City Police Department’s Chief of Police, Karl Jegeris and Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thorn don’t care about the lives of Native Americans. They’ve always used horrible tactics to persecute Native people in Rapid City,” he said.
The Pennington County Coroner said Mariah High Hawk had bruising on her face along with broken fingers. Her fingernails were chipped and she suffered severe head trauma – so much so that she had holes in her head. She was put there under that trailer and it’s obvious she was murdered, Gluha Mani said.
“But the official cause of death listed as hypothermia. That’s bullshit. She was murdered. The boyfriend is to blame. He even confessed to his aunt that he murdered Mariah. We’re forcing Karl Jergeris to do his job professionally,” he added.
“Mariah just turned 20 and is the mother of two children, an infant son and a four-year-old girl. The little girl keeps asking her grandfather, `When is my mama going to come back?’ She can’t fathom what death is all about. Mariah worked at a fast food restaurant. She was well respected and liked by her fellow employees. Andrew Boyd is almost 30 and is White. This happened in Rapid City on Silver Leaf Avenue and it is a terrible and senseless tragedy. Andrew Boyd has a rap sheet longer than your arm and mine,” Gluha Mani told this writer in a recent telephone interview.
Criminal cases involving Native Americans and similar cases involving Whites are handled much differently. White people have an entitlement with law enforcement that American Indians will never have, so said Stan Starcomesout, a member of the tribe most who live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation belong to - including Canupa Gluha Main - the Oglala Lakota Sioux.
Starcomesout (pronounced ‘Star Comes Out’) was a career law enforcement officer for several decades and is now retired. He worked as a tribal police patrol officer, a detective, and even at one time, an acting chief of police on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. A U.S. Army Infantryman who served in the Vietnam War, Starcomesout admits for Natives visiting Rapid City, racism and all the hate that comes with it is all too real, even in the face of law enforcement in South Dakota’s second largest city, which has a population of around 79,000.
“I don’t know what’s going on with the police these days,” Starcomesout told me. “They are too quick to use deadly force. There is no need for this and things must change. It’s not just a problem in Rapid City, it is a problem throughout the country. When I was trained to be a policeman, lethal force was the absolute last option we had. With these trigger-happy cops today, it seems to be their first option. The way they’re trained needs to change. It really does. Things cannot continue like this.”
Starcomesout said there is something very wrong with all the police arrests at a disproportionate ratio for Native American compared to Whites in Rapid City and Pennington County. He said the Rapid City Police Department and the Pennington County Sheriff’s Department are “too quick to escalate their use of force” and added that for American Indians living in, or visiting, Rapid City, the old slogan that all police hold true, “to protect and serve”, isn’t true at all. Natives are singled out, persecuted, roughed up, tasered and pepper sprayed for what more often than not, seem to be idiotic reasons, and sometimes they are even killed by those wearing a badge.
Strong Heart Warrior Society’s second in command, Earl Denny, whose Native name is `Angry Little Bear’, said “I often wonder what the hell’s going on with these police. The people are not blind. What are their policies and procedures? When we ask them they never give us a straight answer. I honestly don’t think they even have a policy and procedure handbook because in this, it would tell these officers what they are supposed to do step by step, in all types of criminal investigations.”
“In South Dakota, I’ve seen that they have no policy or procedure. The officer either shoots them or tasers them,” Denny said. “In a policy and procedure handbook, they would have guidelines to follow. You don’t pull out your side arm or taser and use it right away, that’s uncalled for – the continuum-of-force doesn’t allow for this. The first thing, depending on the person you are confronting, would call for you to increase your voice, so it sounds above his. If the officer is not getting anywhere with this, it would then be time to try to arrest the perpetrator. If the person resists arrest, the officer pulls out his pepper spray and uses it. I’ve been hit with pepper spray and it knocked me right on my fanny. Now there are some who are not affected by this. And if this happens, hopefully by then you have other officers at the crime scene to help you. If not, the officer can resort to using a taser. I’ve been tased before and it’s much worse than pepper spray. In all the years I’ve been in law enforcement, I’ve never seen an officer go past pepper spray.”
Angry Little Bear was a police officer for 17 years in Phillips, Wisc. He said he only had to draw his gun once in all the time he was a cop and he did not fire it because the situation got remedied without the use of lethal force. He is also an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Chippewa Indians. He spent some of his youth growing up on the Bad River Indian Reservation in Wisconsin, along with living in a very large city in the northern, high-plains state as a youth. For most of his life, he’s lived off the reservation and is what his race refers to as “a city Indian.”
“The Pennington County Sheriff’s Department has changed a lot and they’ve adjusted their policies,” said James Magaska Swan, leader of the United Urban Warrior Society based in Rapid City. “The Rapid City Police you have to take them in two parts: The younger generation of officers are trying to do the right thing. But the older ones, the good old boys, are the real problem, and they will eventually get the younger ones to do what they’re doing, operating the way they’re operating.”
“Rapid City Police are always asking for more officers and they hire them, usually six or eight at a time, but they usually don’t last. What’s happening? Their turnover speaks volumes in itself. I get reports from people all the time that the cops are abusive and that they have attitudes. But when the cameras are rolling, they’re compliant. They tend to really play up felony charges with Natives. It’s much worse for Natives than Whites here. With Natives, the Rapid City Police are very unfair with charging us, convicting us, and treating us when we are incarcerated,” said Swan, who lives in Rapid City and is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, which is part of the Lakota Nation.
Most Native Americans and their families cannot afford to hire an attorney to represent them in criminal matters, Swan said. So the only option they have is being legally represented by a state lawyer, commonly referred to as a public defender. More often than not, such legal counsel is deficient and Natives suffer heavy legal consequences because of it all.
“Three teenage white girls were driving around Rapid City throwing bags of urine on Native people and they walked. These are young girls and they had lawyers who argued that they didn’t know what they were doing, so they requested only giving them some community service, and then, asked that the court agree to let them go. They walked. If that would have been three Native girls doing the same to White people, that would have never happened. Native girls would’ve been given big fines and jail time, no doubt,” Swan told this writer in a recent telephone interview.
Native people can’t walk the streets without being stopped by cops, Swan complained. Law enforcement officials are especially brutal toward homeless Natives. “A group of homeless guys were sitting downtown on a bench and were being harassed by a bike cop. The bike cop knew one of the guys, anyhow, this guy just got out of jail and the cop didn’t like that, so he just kept pressing and pressing this homeless guy, trying to get him to blow up so he would do something to be arrested for, and it ended up in a horrible way,” Swan said.
“A lot of Natives don’t even like calling the cops. It’s far more than even racial profiling, the way they treat us. The Native community spoke out about them painting our sacred prayer words on a cop car – Mita Kuye Oyasin – it means “All Relations” in the Lakota language and the cops are going around saying that it means “We’re all related,” which it doesn’t mean at all,” Swan said.
Brendyn Medina, communications specialist with the Rapid City Police Department, said, “We treat all victims of crime the same. The only thing that matters to us is someone is a victim. There is a disproportionate amount of minority perpetrators in our community that commit criminal acts and end up jail, but no matter what their race, we give them their rights and treat them fairly.”
“We simply don’t have the time to hassle people for no reason at all. We don’t have the time to give kids a hard time. Our officers are constantly going from call to call and they’d never drive around the city looking for somebody to pick on. If we’re not investigating a crime or if we don’t have a sound reason to stop someone, we’re not going to – our officers are interested in the Constitutional Rights of people,” Medina told this writer in a telephone interview.
Medina said that six years ago, a Native named Daniel Tiger shot three Rapid City Police officers, killing two and seriously maiming another, who was shot in the face. Police dispatch initially got a complaint that some people were involved with a problem in the neighborhood and when a bike cop responded, he found Daniel Tiger drinking from an open container, outside, in public, which is illegal in Rapid City. Somebody called police dispatch and complained that Tiger and some other people were causing a disturbance and the bike cop, along with other police, answered this call.
“In the end, Daniel Tiger shot three of our officers, two of which didn’t survive,” Medina said.
Tiger was drinking from an open bottle of vodka and he provided false information regarding his identification. “As the officers tried to ID him, that’s when Tiger opened fire on officers. “We were legitimately investigating a crime he was committing,” Medina said. “During the crossfire, Tiger was shot and mortally wounded. The confrontation ended up with three officers and Tiger being shot. Out of those four, only one survived, who was shot through the face. We’re proud to say that six years later, Tim Doyle is still on our police roster. He was just promoted to sergeant.
“We’ve developed an independent Community Advisory Committee. It is a way for the community to have our Chief of Police’s ear, so that they can give the chief any kind of input he might need to know about. We understand that there are some serious minority issues here in Rapid City and we are trying to do our best to make things better. The police have a disproportionate number of contacts with our minority population – mainly Natives – but I feel very confident telling you that since I started with the department in 2014, things have gotten much better.”
Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thorn told this writer in a telephone interview, “We don’t make traffic stops based on race. We have a disproportionate amount of Natives here, about 10 percent of population of Pennington County is Native and our jail is comprised of 50 percent Native American. I don’t think there is a one-line answer to this, but much of it has to do with poverty, alcoholism and drug addiction, along with domestic abuse that the Native American community suffers from here.”
“We are trying to remedy this,” Sheriff Thorn said. “The Rapid City Police Department formed a Community Advisory Committee and the Pennington County Sheriff’s Department dovetailed into it. It was implemented to help Native Americans with some of these social issues. It began three years ago and we’re seeing positive effects from it. We have another initiative we’re working on, which includes the courts, law enforcement, the city and county government, which is a national program named the Safety and Justice Challenge. Pennington County is one of 20 sites picked from almost 200 that applied nationwide. This program is sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation based in Chicago. Through it, we’re trying to help our Native American citizens overcome some of these troubling problems they’re confronted with.”
Sheriff Thorn’s advice to anyone being pulled over by a police car? Well, it’s simple and based in common sense and respect. “Comply if there are flashing red lights behind you. Pull over and stop your vehicle. Comply with the officer or deputy. If you have complaints about the way you were treated, you can do so afterwards. If you feel that you were treated inappropriately, there are mechanisms in place that we will check. If we find that you were wronged after investigating your criminal complaint, we will act on this. We want our deputies to always act professionally and in accordance with the law. The courts also have mechanisms in place in which to deal with this, and if need be, an investigation on their part will be made on such a matter,” he said.
Vaughn Vargas, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the chair of the Community Advisory Committee (CAC), said in a telephone interview, “The CAC has been a recommendation since 1977 through the South Dakota Advisory Board to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In 1977 a report was issued by the federal government about Native Americans and distrust of the government. These are many of the same areas of distrust that Natives have today.”
“There remains much distrust of the placement of Native American foster children in foster care and fear and antagonism concerning law enforcement is a big issue, too, but these fears are not just in Rapid City but in South Dakota overall,” Vargas said
“Craig Howe, Ph.D., is the director of the Center of American Research and Native Studies and he has done some phenomenal work in his talks with the Rapid City community in general, like cutting through the stereotypical myths, largely created by Hollywood movies, and how the big screen has caused so much racism and even hatred concerning Native Americans with other races. Dr. Howe clarifies how through generations of Hollywood movies with so many cowboys versus Indian themes, Native Americans are erroneously portrayed as savages, as inferiors, and overall, just bad people,” he said.
“This just isn’t so, we’re really a wonderful race of people with our own history, traditions, religion, and even our own languages. We’re not like Hollywood has makes us out to be - as ‘enemies,’” Vargas told me.
Meanwhile, what Dr. Howe focuses on with law enforcement is the Fort Laramie Treaties and how the discovery of gold began robbing Natives of tribal lands. He gives them a thorough history of how treaties have been broken. Most treaties have been broken because of the rich natural resources that are so abundant in the Black Hills, Vargas said.
“Dr. Howe tells law enforcement how our treaty lands have been reneged on, how Natives have been placed on reservations, and the stiff consequences Natives face with the Major Crimes Act, which makes it clear that any crime committed on a reservation is a matter of federal court jurisdiction, not something to be handled through tribal or local courts. The Major Crimes Act brings with it much stiffer incarceration penalties. It makes it harder for American Indians to face prosecution and these cases take it a lot longer to be settled through the court system. A lot of people who break laws are processed into Rapid City jails and are incarcerated there, which is very wrong, too,” Vargas said.
As far as interest by the local Lakota community and what the CAC has done so far, Vargas says, so far, so good: “We gave 175 kids gave backpacks to last August for an after school event in which 300 people showed up overall, including parents. This year, 250 backpacks were given away, and we had around 325 overall attendees at this year’s back-to-school activity. Members of the Pennington County Sheriff Dept., the Rapid City Police Dept., and the Rapid City Fire Dept. were also there. We’ve also had two Easter Egg hunts, with both having amazing turnouts. These events were organized and led by a community advisory member named Erik Bringswhite, a Native American who lives in Rapid City,” Vargas told this writer.
One of the long-term goals of the CAC is to introduce and support a grant to implement body cameras for both the Rapid City Police Department and the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office. The CAC will be on the policy review committee for this initiative. The CAC is also focusing on criminal justice reform as outlined by the MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge, with the CAC trying to introduce some new mandates if the grant is secured, Vargas said.
“It’s important for police to wear body cameras. They help with officer safety, accountability issues, and also, serve immensely helpful for evidentiary purposes,” Vargas said. “We’re also working to diversify the police force so we have more Native American officers in both the Rapid City Police Department and at the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office. There are a lot of sources that encourage minority involvement with law enforcement. Rapid City has a sizable tribal population - the University of South Dakota Government Research Bureau indicates the city has 23 percent population of Native Americans. Rapid City is not eligible for many grants that serve tribal communities because we’re not on tribal land. One thing I can say is that law enforcement shows up and they show up on short notice for all our meetings and events.”
But one of South Dakota’s most distinguished award-winning journalists, James Giago Davies, managing editor of Native Sun News (based in Rapid City), told this writer, “Racial profiling? Sure it exists. I’ve experienced it myself. Being on the brown side, you can say I’ve seen it and felt it all my life.”
“My first experience was when I was a teen. The police kept pulling over my friends and I and they gave us a hard time. I was only 14 or so, and we all rode our bikes around. We got the picture loud and clear that as young Natives, the police didn’t like us much.”
“I remember once, one of the White neighbor kids was playing with us at our house. He brought his younger sister and after we were done playing and the neighbor kids got home, the little girl claimed that we stole a doll from her. Anyhow, their parents called the cops and it wasn’t long before they were knocking on our door. This was 1966 and the police sort of ripped up our house looking for the doll. My poor mother followed them around from room to room as they were rummaging around, throwing our things on the floor. Mom couldn’t believe the police were acting like this. She kept yelling at them, ‘What are you doing? This is my house and you have no right to come in here and tear it apart like you’re doing!’”
“A little later, another neighbor lady dropped by with the doll and she told the police they should be ashamed of themselves for treating our family this way. In the end, the police just left without even a hint of an apology,” Giago Davies said.
“Police here treat Natives much differently than Whites. They are here to protect and serve the Whites but they treat Indians much differently. I can’t say they’re all like that - maybe one out of five is a really good cop and is colorblind in regard to race - but the other four are abusive to Natives, and it’s always been this way here, as long as I can remember. Law enforcement seems to accept it and they even seem to like things this way.”
“Within the Rapid City Police Department there is a movement to have a more positive relationship with the Native community. They have a police car with a positive Native saying written in the Lakota language and it looks like a good facade, but to me, I think nothing’s really changed. It’s just the same way they’ve always operated and now they have a Native saying on one of their cruisers.
“I was traveling to Spearfish from Rapid City at 75 miles an hour on the interstate and several people passed a highway patrol officer at 77, 78, 79 miles per hour. He let them fly by, and they were all White drivers. But when I drove past him at 76 or 77 mph, he pulled me over. I think he felt he had to pull me over.” Giago Davies, an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, said, and whose uncle, Tim Giago, in 1981 founded Indian Country Today Media Network in Rapid City, and was the company’s first publisher. Indian Country Today was sold to another concern but today is the largest leading news source for American Indians nationwide.
“From my own personal experience, all I can say is that it started with petty stuff. Then you develop an antagonistic relationship with the cop and it festers. They begin picking on you before you even commit a crime. They’ll give a ten year old Native kid a problem about his bike.`Did you steal that bike?’ and the Indian kid will say, ‘No my parents gave it to me for Christmas,’ and the interrogation continues, ‘Well, how do we know that you didn’t steal it?’ - and so forth and so on… ,” Giago Davies said.
“Then we have Natives dying in jail for no apparent reason. There is no doubt there is a large degree of criminal activity in the Lakota community, but a lot of this criminal activity can be directly involved with problems regarding the cops themselves. I don’t believe this is a bad script from a bad Hollywood TV show. The type of people they hire as cops, the type they keep as cops and promote as cops are people who tend to be small-minded bullies drawn to a gun and badge. To them, this is power and they have a very sanctimonious belief system of who Indians are and they also feel that it’s their duty to keep us in line,” Giago Davies said.
“It’s a double standard with how they react to the same sort of crimes. If a White person is walking along the side of the road, drunk, waving around his whiskey bottle, they just see him as a drunk. But for the Indian guy doing the same thing, well, he’s always held accountable as a troublemaker and a menace,” the career journalist told me.
“In their minds, they are going to handle the Indian much differently than the White guy, in a pigeonholed way. And the typical White person gets processed in the court system in a much different way than the Indian guy, too,” he said.
Giago Davies paused, reflected a little, and then said. “When that cop starts on the force, he gets brainwashed by others on the Rapid City Police Department or the Pennington County Sheriff’s Department. The new recruit may start off as a non-racist and open-minded young person, but this brainwashing goes on day in and day out.
“We’re trying to get the cops to stop this attitude but it’s almost impossible. And it seems to be getting worse. When you look in their faces, you see no kindness. It’s just not there. Being in Indian country as long as I have been, I’ve gotten to know these Native American kids as students, as athletes, as sons and daughters, and most are really great kids. They don’t deserve to be branded by these creeps as hooligans or criminals because they’re not. Once you get to know them, they’re really great kids,” he said.
As a reporter working for the family’s enterprises, Giago Davies admitted that in adulthood around his home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and in much of South Dakota in general, he has been treated much differently than most Native American men. Yes, Rez Royalty is all too real, in some cases.
“I was walking along at an athletic event last year at a university and a cop walking by the other way said, `How are you doing Jimmy?’ and he gave me a big, friendly smile. I didn’t know him from Adam. He found out the name most call me is Jimmy. I don’t go by Jimmy in the newspaper, in print my name always appears as James Giago Davies. I was sort of shocked by it all but it only reinforces the fact that we are treated very differently here than White people. And things have to change, yes they do.”