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The Muscogee Nation Wants Its Policing To Focus On Prevention Along With Enforcement

A 2020 Supreme Court decision returned policing and prosecutions to tribal authorities, and the Muscogee Nation's tribal police want to interact differently with the community.

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The Lighthorse Police Department is small — just 63 officers total and a dispatch team. The Muscogee Nation is looking to hire more officers and prosecutors to meet law enforcement demands.
The Lighthorse Police Department is small — just 63 officers total and a dispatch team. The Muscogee Nation is looking to hire more officers and prosecutors to meet law enforcement demands. Muscogee Nation

It's a Friday night and the parking lot of the River Spirit Casino near downtown Tulsa, Okla., is already bustling with traffic and people headed into the casino for a night out.

"The handcuffs represent law enforcement, but the rose is to show my softer side," explained Lighthorse Police Ofcr. Amy Bennett. She's 48 with straight blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail and tattoos, including a pair of handcuffs with a rose threaded through inked down both arms. She heads out on the first call of the night.

"The first one is harassment," Bennett said after radioing in that she's headed to Sapulpa, about 20 minutes away from the River Spirit.

"This lady said she's being harassed by a male subject, so we're going to go there, see what's going on," she explained.

It turns out, the man she called about has broken into her house before and she's afraid for her safety. Later on, after filing paperwork, Ofcr. Bennett calls a judge who issues a victim protection order, or VPO.

Lighthorse officers such as Bennett now patrol 11 counties in Oklahoma. It's a small police force — just 63 officers total and a dispatch team — and the tribal nation is looking to hire more officers and prosecutors to meet law enforcement demands. This expansion is also seen as a way to interact differently with the community, especially in light of last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, and the national conversation around police reform.

"They can look at what has worked and what hasn't worked," said former U.S. Attorney Trent Shores, who is a Choctaw citizen.

Shores oversaw hundreds of prosecutions after the Supreme Court decision took effect.

"They can look at their own culture and experience and policing Native American communities, I think to best develop a community-oriented policing structure that focuses as much on prevention as it does on enforcement," Shores said.

One of the tribal judges for the Muscogee Nation is Stacy Leeds. She says the discussion of how to police differently has been going on for years, even before the Supreme Court weighed in.

"I think that a lot of tribes deal with sentencing and treatment and family services in a way that's slightly different than what you find in the mainstream court systems," Leeds said.

Tribal nations, Leeds said, have a more holistic approach. In her role as a tribal judge, she thinks institutions have more flexibility to not treat criminal complaints as an isolated incident. It's about looking at the big picture.

"Most often when there is a criminal case, that family also might be in conflict. So there might be family law cases associated with the same parties," Leeds explained. "Maybe there are social services that are being provided across different platforms within the tribe.

The Muscogee Nation also invested millions of dollars in mental health and domestic violence prevention programs — problems the Lighthorsemen deal with all the time.

But, with all these services comes a bigger price tag. Jason Salsman, who works for the Muscogee Nation, says the federal government needs to step up.

"We are saying honor the trust responsibility to tribes," said Salsman about how the federal government needs to fully fund their justice system.

"This is the way it is, the Supreme Court has spoken."

Muscogee Nation leaders recently spoke with members of Congress asking them to fully fund their tribal justice system.

Back on patrol, Ofcr. Bennett said she wants to police differently. She does everything she can to avoid deadly force, and wishes more officers would do the same.

"I don't care how bad a person is, I don't want to take them from their family," Bennett said.

For now, that means more training, more conversation and more understanding between officers such as Amy Bennett and her off-reservation law enforcement counterparts.

Copyright 2022 KOSU. To see more, visit KOSU.

: May 25, 2021, 11:00 PM
An earlier photo caption mistakenly referred to the Lighthorse Police Department as the Lighthouse Police department.Previously posted May 24: An earlier version of this story mistakenly described Stacy Leeds as a tribal prosecutor. She is a tribal judge.

Transcript :

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A U.S. Supreme Court decision last year has changed law enforcement in the state of Oklahoma. That decision restored tribal authority to both police crimes and prosecute criminals. It's also led to greater responsibility for Muscogee Nation officers, known as Lighthorsemen. From member station KOSU, Allison Herrera reports on what that responsibility looks like on the ground.

ALLISON HERRERA, BYLINE: It's a Friday night, and Muscogee Nation Lighthorse Police officer Amy Bennett is getting ready to go out on her shift.

AMY BENNETT: I'm 151.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: (Unintelligible).

BENNETT: Going to be 197.

HERRERA: Bennett is sitting in her police car outside the River Spirit Casino near downtown Tulsa.

BENNETT: Well, we already have a call, so we're going to head that way.

HERRERA: What's our call?

BENNETT: Well, the first one is harassment.

HERRERA: In the small town of Sapulpa about 20 minutes away.

BENNETT: This lady says she's being harassed by a male subject. We're going to go over there, see what's going on.

HERRERA: We head there to check on the woman who called in. It turns out the man she called about has broken into her house before, and she's afraid for her safety. A judge issues a restraining order, and Bennett serves it to the man and warns him that she will arrest him if he violates it.

BENNETT: OK. So I just - I think for this for right now, since this is an emergency...

HERRERA: Lighthorse officers like Bennett now patrol 11 counties in Oklahoma. It's a small police force - just 63 officers total and a dispatch team. The tribal nation is looking to hire more officers and prosecutors to meet law enforcement demands.

TRENT SHORES: And they can look at what has worked and what hasn't worked.

HERRERA: That's former U.S. Attorney Trent Shores. He oversaw hundreds of prosecutions after the Supreme Court decision took effect.

SHORES: They can look at their own culture and experience in policing Native American communities...

HERRERA: Shores says Muscogee Nation is in a unique moment.

SHORES: ...I think to best develop a community-oriented policing structure that focuses as much on prevention as it does on enforcement.

HERRERA: One of the tribal prosecutors for the Muscogee Nation is Stacy Leeds. She says the discussion of how to police differently has been going on for years, even before the Supreme Court weighed in.

STACY LEEDS: I think that a lot of tribes deal with sentencing and treatment and family services in a way that's slightly different than what you find in the mainstream court system.

HERRERA: Different by investing more in mental health and domestic violence prevention programs - Muscogee Nation just spent millions of dollars in both of those areas, problems the Lighthorsemen deal with all the time. But with all these services comes a bigger price tag. Jason Salsman, who works for the Muscogee Nation, says the federal government needs to step up.

JASON SALSMAN: We are saying honor the trust, responsibility to tribes - this is the way it is. The Supreme Court has spoken.

HERRERA: Muscogee Nation leaders recently spoke with members of Congress, asking them to fully fund their tribal justice system.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Ten-four, sir. One-eleven contacted me.

HERRERA: Back on patrol, Officer Bennett says she wants to police differently. She does everything she can to avoid deadly force. She wishes more officers would do the same.

BENNETT: I don't care how bad that person is. I don't want to take them from their family.

HERRERA: For now, that means more training, more conversation and more understanding between officers like Amy Bennett and her off-reservation law enforcement counterparts.

For NPR News, I'm Allison Herrera in Tulsa, Okla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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