It’s a familiar story: A police officer shoots and kills a person of color, and is later cleared. Community outrage and protests follow. While the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City grabbed national headlines and spawned the Black Lives Matter movement, Native Americans say they’re also suffering from long-standing disparities in criminal justice, including police killings – far from the national spotlight.
In South Dakota, Native Americans told us police seem to target people driving license plates that begin with the number 6 – meaning they’re registered to residents of a reservation – or that display images of native identity, such as bumper stickers with feathers on them.
Two recent incidents involving white officers in the state have stoked suspicions. In August, a tribal police officer on the Pine Ridge Reservation repeatedly used a stun gun on 32-year-old Jeffrey Eagle Bull. Then, in the state capital Pierre, the parents of an 8-year-old Rosebud Sioux girl sued police after four officers surrounded the child and used a stun gun on her when she was threatening to harm herself.
But concerns about how police treat native communities aren’t new. In 2000, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights noted that “many native Americans in South Dakota have little or no confidence in the criminal justice system” and warned that “the administration of justice at the federal and state levels is permeated by racism.”
The commission recommended increasing the number of Native Americans on the force, but 15 years later, the number of native officers on the 120-man Rapid City force has jumped from just one to three in a city where about 10 percent of the population is native.
Here are five things you might not know about Native Americans and their relationship with the police:
1. Native Americans are the group most likely to die in confrontations with law enforcement
According to a Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, Native Americans account for 1.9 percent of police killings even though they’re just 0.8 percent of the U.S. population. In comparison, African-Americans make up 13 percent of the population and 26 percent of police killings.
“It’s not only a crisis, it’s a quiet crisis that people aren’t aware of,” said Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians.
2. Native people face longer average prison sentences than whites
Native Americans convicted of crimes in South Dakota were handed down 57 percent more prison time than whites, according to University of South Dakota research from 2003.
Richard Braunstein, an assistant professor of political science, looked at data from 1994 to 2000 and discovered that American Indians’ prison sentences averaged a little more than five years while whites’ sentences averaged just over three years.
3. Native Americans face higher homicide and motor vehicle fatality rates
According to the CDC, the homicide rate for American Indians and Native Alaskans was 5.9 people per 100,000 in 2011, nearly twice that of the 3.2 rate for white Americans.
Native Americans have also faced a high rate of victimization for other violent crimes, including simple assault, aggravated assault and sexual assault – more than twice the rate of any other racial group, according to a 2003 South Dakota Law Review article.
The motor vehicle fatality rate is also higher – 16.6 for Native Americans to 11.5 for whites. However, the suicide rate for Native Americans – 10.6 people – is lower than the 13.9 rate for whites.
4. A Rapid City man was shot dead by police a day after attending a Native Lives Matter march
On Dec. 19, Allen Locke went to a Native Lives Matter march in Rapid City, to call for better treatment of natives by police. A day later, his wife, Celeste Two Crow, called police, wanting him out of the house until he was sober. Speaking exclusively to America Tonight, she described her version of what happened next.
When the Rapid City officer Anthony Meirose arrived, Two Crow insists Locke made no threat of violence toward her or the officer. He was holding a knife that police described as a kitchen steak knife. Police allege that Locke stated, “It’s a good day to die,” when the officer arrived, but Two Crow says Locke was eight to 10 feet from the officer and didn’t make any movement toward him.
“He did not raise it at him,” she said. “He did not try to run after him. He didn’t charge at him. He didn’t do none of that.”
Rapid City police say Officer Meirose fired five shots only after Locke lunged at him, but Two Crow denies that he lunged. The police chief wouldn’t speak with America Tonight while the case was under investigation. A month after the incident, state investigators released their report concluding the shooting death of Locke was justified. Two Crow says she now doesn’t trust the police and probably won’t call them ever again.
5. A Lakota mom tells her son to only hang out with one or two friends outside
Karin Eagle, a Lakota mother, says she’s very afraid that her 15-year-old son Miguel could get hurt or even killed by police. She warns him not to walk down street with more than two friends so that it doesn’t look like he’s in a gang. She also teaches him to accept any sort of indignity a police officer might deal out and to always keep his hands visible.
“I would rather have a whole healthy alive son and help him heal from that indignity rather than bury my son,” she said. “I’m very disappointed I have to arm my son with that knowledge.”