The Surge on Standing Rock
Dakota Digest - 12/14/2009
By Jackelyn Severin
In June of 2008 a surge of BIA officers came to the Standing Rock Reservation as part of “Operation Dakota Peacekeeper.” Their goal was to crack down on crime in an area where vandalism, break-ins, and violence occurred on a daily basis. For the first story in our series about crime on the reservation we talked with Standing Rock citizens about the surge.
Jerry Petersen has lived in McLaughlin for over 25 years. He owns the Prairie Dog Café on McLaughin’s main street. He says before the surge his restaurant was broken into seven times.
“Every morning when I’d walk up town I’d pop around the corner of the theatre down there and I was looking at our building. See if there’s a curtain hanging out or a broken window or a door or whatever and you know it’s just not a good feeling,” says Petersen.
Petersen says the surge has changed the whole aura around town for the better. His café has not been broken into since.
“Oh I’d welcome those guys back I tell ya what. Send them back whenever you want to and we got food for them,” says Petersen.
Aubrey Skye is from Porcupine North Dakota. He was in McLaughlin enjoying some of the Prairie Dog Café’s cuisine.
Skye says, “I think it really made a big difference in helping out with the crime in our communities because people could call in and they would be able to get an officer there in much less time than before. They could respond more efficiently, you know, I think at one time they had like upwards of 30 officers here and that made a big difference.”
Both Skye and Petersen say before the surge if someone called 911 it would take up to three or four hours to get an officer on site and sometimes no one would come at all.
That was a time when nine officers covered the entire Standing Rock Reservation. Ron Walters works at Sitting Bull College he says people were starting to accept crime as a normal part of reservation life. He says the surge showed people what it was like to be safe.
Walters says, “When you bring officers on to the reservation that don’t have a connection here, that they’re just they’re going to do their job objectively they’re not going to feel like they couldn’t handcuff a prisoner because their family might get mad at them.”
Walters says crime has increased since the surge ended but he still praises U.S. Senators John Thune and Byron Dorgan for bringing the surge here.
Thune says the idea of the surge came after pressure from community members wanting something to be done about the high crime rates. Thune says he went to the BIA to see what they could do about it.
"And to really try and go in and secure these areas and see if providing security and creating a culture of everybody community policing, everybody stepping up and seeing if they couldn’t make a difference and it really did make a difference,” Thune says.
Shirley Marvin lives in McLaughlin and works on the Elderly Advisory Council. She has a different view of the surge.
Marvin says, “Just throwing a bunch of bodies onto a reservation to stop crime isn’t going to stop at all not if there committing some of them themselves.”
Marvin says the surge was great at first. Crime was going down and people felt safe but she says some officers started wrongfully arresting people especially elders. Marvin was arrested herself in what she says was a very complicated child custody case between her daughter, son-in-law and grandchild. She says an officer accused her of hiding her daughter in her home.
"I was down at the Cenex gassing up my car when they stopped me and they accused me of this. I told them no she’s not at my house I don’t know where she’s at and she wasn’t,” says Marvin.
After more confrontation with the BIA officer Marvin says she paid for her gas and drove home where she found three police cars and police officers surrounding her house. Marvin says the police told her they could hear children inside her house with her daughter.
“I said your mistaken I don’t know where she’s at. She’s not here. So that police officer told me 'you’re gonna let me in that house’ I said I don’t have to let you in my house. He didn’t have a search warrant. He grabbed my arms and I said get your hands off of me. He said ‘I can put my hands on you any time I want to’ and he grabbed both my arms and pulled them in the back like that and handcuffed me. ‘I’m arresting you!’ So I said well go ahead. That was right after he told me he was going to kick my door in if I didn’t open it. So I said go ahead you can replace it then,” says Marvin.
Marvin spent the night in jail. She says the next day the prosecutor apologized to her and let her go with no charges.
Despite her experience Marvin says there needs to be more police on the reservation but she says there also needs to be better training for officers and better screening.
And that is exactly what Congress is trying to do. The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009 is currently making its way through congress. The proposed legislation provides for increased funding, more tribal law enforcement and additional training.
Wayne Shelly is the instructor of Criminal Justice at Sitting Bull College. He is optimistic about the legislation because it gives more power to tribal courts and law enforcement.
But Shelley says until the government decides to address the real problems on reservations like alcohol abuse, lack of jobs, domestic violence then they are only treating the symptoms and not the cause. He says the problems stem from reservations being neglected by the federal government.
Shelley says, “I mean anybody that knows anything about Native American history knows that there have been a lot of empty promises and false starts so the real question now is how committed the federal government is and how committed they are to making some real changes.”
Shelley says although more needs to be done he was encouraged by the surge. He says people cannot begin to address the real problems in their society until they feel safe and secure.
Click here to play Real Media: