"Erosion Of Confidence" 15 Years Later

Dec 22, 2014

This story examines police and race relations in Rapid City 15 years after the US Civil Rights Commission came to South Dakota and issued this report citing a lack of trust in law enforcement by Native Americans.

Listen to the story here:

AUDIO TRANSCRIPT:

HOST LEAD:

Race relations and allegations of police brutality are among the top national headlines this year, from Ferguson, Missouri to New York City scenes like this are playing out in mass protests.

FADE UP (Chanting):  Whose Lives Matter?  Black Lives Matter.  Whose Lives Matter?  Black Lives Matter. 

South Dakota is not immune to what’s happening elsewhere in the country.  The state has grappled with issues of race relations throughout its history.  Look no further than a protest in Rapid City late last week.

FADE UP (Chanting):  Native Lives Matter… Native Lives Matter.. Natives Lives Matter…

Today we take a look at Friday’s peaceful rally and march against police brutality… it was followed on Saturday by a police shooting involving a Native American man.  Police officials say the suspect had a knife.   The incident, now under investigation, shocked the Native community.  

SDPB’s Charles Michael Ray reports on this and delves further back to the US Civil Rights Commission hearing that occurred 15 years ago in the Black Hills.  

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RAY:  On Friday about 200 people lined a busy street in Rapid City held up their hands and chanted words that have become a slogan in a national movement.

FADE UP (Chanting): – “Hands up don’t shoot. Hands up don’t shoot”

RAY: Organizers of this rally hoped it would open the door for new solutions to race issues and help end future violent altercations with police.  Just over 24-hours later Rapid City Police were called to a home to remove an unwanted subject.  Captain Dan Rud alleges the suspect, 30 year old Allen Locke, a Lakota man attacked officer Anthony Meirose with a knife.   Meirose then fired multiple shots killing Locke.    

RUD: “The officer is white, the suspect is Native American but it’s not a race deal.  This is based in criminal behavior and has nothing to do with race. If the police officer was Native American and the suspect was white the result would have been the same thing.”

RAY:  Rud says the police had a history with Locke.  County and state law enforcement are now investigating the incident, and have taken testimony from witnesses for an official report.  In the Lakota Homes neighborhood local residents are grappling with the tragedy.  Melaine Stoneman says Locke’s children were in the home where the shooting occurred.

STONEMAN: “If you have a heart you’re going to cry with us.   You’re going to feel with us. You're going to understand.”

RAY: Stoneman a Sicgangu Lakota is a Rapid City resident on hand for a prayer service at the scene of the incident.   

STONEMAN: “As Indian people, that’s our son.  That’s how we could say.  That’s our son. And any mother would say that.  Any mother’s heart would hurt for another mother."

RAY: Stoneman says the police are not dealing properly with deeper issues surrounding this tragedy.   For Stoneman this incident only contributes to a longstanding mistrust of police in this community.  

STONEMAN:  “I  would tell my son.  If you’re stopped by the police, take your hands out of your pocket.  Put your arms in the air.  Ask them not to shoot.  Tell them you don’t want to die.  Do whatever they ask.  These are the things us mothers are having to teach our children to survive here on these streets when it comes to being pulled over.  It’s not appropriate for us to have to teach our children those kinds of tactics.” 

RAY: Many in the Native American community say they do not believe the criminal justice system treats them fairly.    It’s a perception that has been well documented in the past.

BERRY:   “Thank you I’m Mary Francis Berry Chairperson of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.”

RAY: In 1999 the US Civil Rights Commission came to South Dakota after a string of race related deaths. In one case a Lakota man in Mobridge died after being shoved into a garbage can.  On Pine Ridge two men were shot execution style and their bodies left near Whiteclay, Nebraska.  And, in Rapid City a number of people were found dead in Rapid Creek.  To this day some of these deaths remain unsolved.   The incidents sparked protests and anger in the Native community.  By the winter of 1999 the U.S. Civil Rights Commission took notice.   They came to the Black Hills, heard testimony from about 100 people, and issued this report.

FEINSTEIN:  “Native Americans in South Dakota: An Erosion of Confidence in the Justice System”

Mark Feinstein was Chair of the Advisory Committee to the commission.

FEINSTEIN: “There is a crisis in South Dakota today.  Native Americans have lost confidence in the criminal justice system.  There is a widespread perception that there is a dual system of justice, one for whites and another for Indians.”

RAY: During this press conference, 15 years ago, Commission Chair Mary Francis Berry went further.

BERRY: “Nothing is more corrosive to the legitimacy of democratic government than a widespread belief that justice is administered unfairly.  The roots of Native American distrust of government lie deep and well entrenched.  Based on a legacy of mistreatment that is a shameful part of the American experience.  The report makes clear that there are serious concerns about the administration of justice that must be addressed.”

TAKEN ALIVE:  “Nope, there is no change. There is no improvement whatsoever.”

RAY: In 1999 Faith Taken Alive testified before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.  15 years later she’s frustrated at what she calls a lack of progress.  Today Taken Alive lives in Mobridge and works as a paralegal for two tribal courts.  She says Native people still confront racism in South Dakota on a daily basis.    

TAKEN ALIVE:  “You see them sitting in church every Sunday.  And yet they turn around out of Church and they hate their fellow man, people of color.  How to you justify that?  Where is the rational in that?  We all worship the same god but why do they think they are above us?  I think it’s their guilt myself because this country stole out land and never paid for it.  

RAY:  The Black Hills land claim remains a point of serious contention in South Dakota.  Floyd Looks for Buffalo Hand is a leader of Sioux Nation Treaty Council and a Lakota elder who lives in Pine Ridge.  Back in 1999 he also testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

HAND: “When that big meeting was on everybody had big dreams.  But they never worked on it.”

RAY: Shortly after the report came out then Governor Bill Janklow was quoted calling it “garbage.”   Hand says today deep racial divisions persist.

HAND:  “Rapid City has always been a racist self-centered city.  Because they teach their children that – Indians are bad.   And Native people teach their children white men are bad. There is no happy middle.”  

IRON EYES:  “Here we find ourselves in South Dakota living worlds apart. Even when we’re together we still live worlds apart.”

RAY:  Chase Iron Eyes is an attorney and one organizer of last week’s anti-police brutality rally.  He says residents of South Dakota both native and non-native need to continue to work on tough issues.  Iron Eyes says this includes not only race relations but also efforts to empower Native people politically and economically.

IRON EYES:  “It’s deeper than just oh these Indians need to pull themselves up by their boot straps.  And they need to just bring themselves out of this situation.  Well, we haven’t controlled the institutions, the economic institutions, the financial institutions, the government institutions.  We’re marginalized from that… so it's a stuggle, it’s not easy.”   

RAY: Those like Dr Frank Pommersheim agree.  Pommersheim is a Law professor at University of South Dakota. He was a member of the Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights commission back in 1999.    He says the unrest in places like in Furgeson, Missouri has something to teach South Dakota.      He says Native people need to be properly represented….  

POMMERSHEIM: “In law enforcement, in the judiciary, in parole and probation departments. Because if we look to the Ferguson situation I think a lot of people say part of the root problem there has been is that the African American population is very, very under-represented in their public institutions.”

RAY:  In Rapid City three out of 122 Police officers are Native American.   Police Chief  Karl Jegeris agrees that more Native police are needed.  He says it’s a challenge he is diligently working on.

JEGERIS:  “We have advertised in the Native Sun News, we’ve sent some of our staff down to PIne Ridge High School for job fairs.  We've done advertising during the LNI tournaments.  I’ve gone on KILI Radio live for a recruitment campaign.”  

RAY: Jegeris asks for help from the Native American community to increase the number of Native police on the force.

JEGERIS:  “It is important for the Native American community to help us in that endeavor and to encourage future generations to consider law enforcement or other components of the criminal justice system as an occupation to serve the community.”   

RAY: But Jegeris agrees that involves building trust in Native communities.  He points to efforts by the department to improve race relations.   He says one example is to integrate officers into their neighborhoods they serve.

JEGERIS:  “That means we are getting to know on a personal basis everybody in the community that we police. Therefore, we are more responsive to the needs of the community.”

RAY: He says his department promotes the idea that the public are the police and the police are the public.

JEGERIS: “Public trust is the most important thing a police department has in order to effectively police its community.  If you don’t have public trust your ability to be successful in policing is greatly diminished.

RAY: Jegeris says other efforts include cross cultural communication programs with tribal officers on Pine Ridge. He says the departments now work together each year during the Lakota Nation Invitational in Rapid City.   On a showcase wall in the Rapid City’s public safety building a special flag of the Oglala Sioux Tribe is on display—it was given to the department by tribal officers.  Jegeris says he’s willing to continue efforts to improve.
 
JEGERIS:  “This is a wonderful community.  There is a great degree of diversity that can and should be celebrated and law enforcement is clearly an important part of trying to orchestrate that harmony that we are capable of.”

RAY: Others like Marty Jackley agree.   Jackley has served as both the US Attorney now the South Dakota Attorney General.  

JACKLEY:   “I think there have been some very strong improvements and recognize there still are areas and ways to go.”

RAY: Jackley says federal law enforcement–which has jurisdiction over major crimes on reservations is working to build relationships on the local level within Indian country.   He says this should continue in several areas of the criminal justice system.  He also points to joint training efforts, underway to help tribal and non-tribal police work together.  

JACKLEY: "In South Dakota we do it right, where our officers often times Federal, State, Sheriffs, Chiefs of Police,  and Tribal Officers train together.   They have consistent training that way. Builds relationships, and I think it’s best for overall safety in South Dakota.”

RAY: Those like Frank Pommersheim, USD Law Professor agree that some progress has been made.  He points to the recent overhaul of state laws that uses alternative forms of punishment for non-violent offenders rather than prison time. He also applauds the governor’s office for making the state office of tribal relations cabinet level position.   But, then Pommersheim goes through the list of 15 recommendations made after the US Civil Rights Commission’s 1999 hearing….

POMMERSHEIM:- “Sure if we could literally go through all of them…”  (fades out)

RAY: It’s a long list, you can find the report on our website (click here), but in the end Pommersheim says none of those recommendations made 15 years ago were ever fully implemented.  There is not one on the list Pommersheim would give a passing letter grade.

POMMERSHEIM:  “People they lose belief in what studies and recommendations mean when nothing or very little  appears to have been done.”

RAY: For those Chase Iron Eyes new approaches to old problems are needed.   Iron Eyes is an attorney and one of a new generation of young native activists.   

IRON EYES: “Our ancestors always counseled us to know the power of Peace.  We’re 10-times stronger with loaded pipes than with loaded guns.”

RAY: He referenced the Chanupa or sacred pipe while he spoke to rally goers halfway through last week’s march against police brutality that he helped to organize in Rapid City.  

IRON EYES:  “Is everybody going OK?  We got water we got food waiting for us I want to thank you all for coming out and showing support for your loved ones and for the people who have been lost.”
 
RAY: During the march, protestors paused and Iron Eyes read a list of more than 20 names of Native Americans who have died along Rapid Creek.  The string of deaths stretches back over several years…   Iron Eyes says the community needs to deal the Native deaths and violence that occurs in police altercations –but he says the community also must recognize two police officers who were shot in the line of duty by a young Native American, Daniel Tiger, in 2011.
 
IRON EYES:  We want to create a better future, and that means reconciling with what happened in the Daniel Tiger situation and reconciling the number of people who we've lost.   They are like causalities in a low brow race war.  Or, at least a dynamic where Indians see cops as something bad and cops see Indians as something profileable.  And, we want to move beyond that and start working towards something constructive.   That’s what we told the mayor–that’s what we told the chief of police we want to changes the perceptions that we have.”  

RAY: Iron Eyes says changing those perceptions will take more work—and cross cultural communication—he says it’s crucial to avoid more events like this one…

FADE UP AUDIO – SINGERS: Lakota drum and song –

 RAY:  Back in Lakota Homes–a small crowd has marched down the street to the home where Allen Locke was killed over the weekend in a Police related shooting.  The event includes a Lakota drum and singers,  some of them are openly crying as they play…

FADE UP AUDIO -- SINGERS– Lakota Drum and song --

RAY:  After the songs Robyn Page with the Lakota Community Homes Board of Directors steps forward and speaks to the small crowd gathered on the street.  

PAGE:  “We must find positive solutions to make sure that this never happens again.  I’m grateful to the parents who brought their children here today.  It is for these children that must be strong, that we must come together as adults, who love these children and want to make sure that nothing ever happens terrible to them again.”

RAY:  The sentiments of Page are echoed again and again in this community.  Many here say they recognize there are challenges ahead but they say continued inaction is not an option.

For SDPB I’m Charles Michael Ray in Rapid City.