RAPID CITY, S.D. – 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.
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