Tribal Police Accused of Brutality, Corruption on S. Dakota Reservation
The Trail of Tears goes on. It still winds its way through dilapidated villages on reservations across the United States, starved of resources and pockmarked by dysfunction.
Nearly two centuries since indigenous Americans were uprooted and driven west, the Trail now leads to places like the Rosebud Sioux reservation in Todd County, South Dakota, a vast grassland that spans hundreds of miles and tumbles into four other counties, where the tribe sees too many of its own end up in prison.
“I think every family on this reservation has (a relative) in prison," Rose Bear Robe, a member of the Rosebud Sioux, told CNN in an August 2012 special report. "It's beginning to be normal now, when people used to be ashamed of it."
While the Census Bureau doesn't provide firm numbers on the Native American population grouping "American Indian" and "Alaska Native" into one category—it's believed that 8.9% of South Dakota's population is Native American. Yet, according to the state's Department of Corrections, in 2011 Native Americans represented 29% of South Dakota's prison population and 38% of juvenile offenders.
In Montana, the Native American population is about 7%, but Montana's DOC says 19% of its male prison population and 33% of its female prison population is indigenous. In Minnesota, the latest Census numbers say that 1.3% of the state is Native American or Alaska Native. But in January 2012, Minnesota's DOC reported that 9% of prisoners were "American Indian."
Both the disparities and the rates of incarceration are troubling to all tribes, including the Rosebud Sioux.
"I don't know how to explain it." said Bear Robe, 56, who is raising her 4-year-old grandson while his father serves time, "But the kids really suffer because of their fathers being in prison."
Over-incarceration exists within all demographics, regardless of race. But Native Americans, who represent just 2% of the overall U.S. population, have major reasons to believe that the system—especially outside tribal courts—is overly punitive toward them.
"Tribes and tribal people often feel they're discriminated against." said John Dossett, general counsel to the National Congress of American Indians. "Someone will leave the reservation, go to town, get drunk, do something dumb and if a white kid had done it, they'd call their parents and take them home,” he continued, “but if it's some strange native kid, they'll put them in jail."
Mark Mauer, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, said the disparity is partly explained by higher crime rates on reservations. But, since major crimes like assaults and most felonies arc prosecuted in state and federal courts off the reservations, he believes racial bias is a factor.
Poverty rates on the Rosebud Sioux reservation are also a contributing factor. Nearly half the people in Todd County—the second-poorest county in the U.S.—live tinder the federal poverty line, and unemployment within the tribe is over 80%. The connection between race and poverty for minorities has been documented by sociologists, and Mauer believes those factors also affect incarceration rates.
"A lot of factors go into this,” he said. "But still we see a lot of very direct racial outcomes even in the theoretically race-neutral court system."
Bear Robe and others who spoke to CNN, including a former Rosebud Sioux reservation police officer, also blame the police force culture itself for the higher incarceration rates for Native Americans.
"They use the word around here 'target,"' she said. "They target individuals so the cops will go after them,"
One of those targeted, according to Bear Robe, was her own son Erie King, who's now serving a 20-year sentence after pleading guilty to biting his then-pregnant girlfriend in 2007 and assaulting the tribal police officer who responded. But it was the officer who targeted her family and attacked King.
According to Bear Robe and a Tribal Council member who visited King in jail alter his arrest, her son suffered a black eye, cut lip, bruises and possibly a broken rib during the incident. Bear Robe was prohibited from taking photos of King's injuries, however, and from calling a doctor to visit him,
The officer was fired from the tribal police department a few years ago. Although current officials wouldn't tell CNN why he was fired or if he had a personal issue with King. The former officer initially agreed to be interviewed by CNN, but never spoke to them again to confirm a time and place for the interview.
A fellow tribal officer who was fired a few weeks before CNN began investigating said that personal vendettas certainly exist within the tribal police force. He also said he was fired because he began blowing the whistle on cases of police brutality and civil-rights and due-process violations.
"You're talking (about),,, spraying handcuffed suspects with pepper spray." said Calvin Waln, the ex-officer, "Physical police brutality where the officers end up injuring or breaking bones themselves from assaulting somebody."
In the past four years, the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council—which is semi-autonomous—has fired two police chiefs under investigation for corruption. In fact, while CNN was on the reservation for its special report, it had to interview the "acting" police chief, Edwin Young, who denied Bear Robe's and Waln's allegations.
"I don't see the corruption," he said, adding that the accusations against the police force are a "misunderstanding." Young, who's from the reservation and has been with the Rosebud police department for 16 years, also said that the police files prior to two years ago, including those related to King's case, are now missing or destroyed.
"I have no idea what happened to those files. That was the previous administration. The previous police chief," he said, "And all those, those are gone now,.. somehow they destroyed all the paperwork,"
After CNN interviewed Young, the Tribal Council reinstated the previous police chief, Grace Her Many Horses, who had been dismissed because of corruption allegations. She refused to be interviewed by CNN.