Bennett County accused of racial profiling, harassment
MARTIN, S.D. - More than 20 Oglala Sioux tribal members aired their grievances and allegations of racial profiling and harassment before the Bennett County Board of Commissioners.
Tribal member after tribal member stood up April 17and told story after story about being targeted by local law enforcement monitoring their movements within the city of Martin and traffic stops within the county limits.
Sheriff Russel Waterbury disputed many of the stories, saying some of the events didn't take place exactly as they were described.
Sandy Flye, an Oglala Sioux tribal member, said she was followed more than once while driving home late from her job at the Indian Health Service Hospital and was stopped because she allegedly crossed the center line of the road.
Flye said her job often required her to drive late night hours and she grew tired of local law enforcement following her vehicle as she made her way home.
"She had crossed the center line and she was probably tired," said the sheriff told commissioners.
The officer who stopped her "told me if you give me your driver's license and you don't have a warrant, I will let you go," Flye said.
She said she was tired of being suspect for simply driving to and from work.
Flye said American Indian children are harassed for gathering on the streets when white children, meeting in the same places, are allowed to do it without the law enforcement intervention.
"They are told they can't hang out together because they are considered a gang. Our kids have a right to walk around on the street, to walk around with each other and to hang out together."
Disputes between an area farmer and Gene Standing Bear, whose tribal land and home are along a county road across from that of the farmer, landed in the courts because Standing Bear said he can't get help from the sheriff when mediation is necessary.
He claimed his wife, who was pregnant, and his daughter were run off the road and nothing was done. The Head Start worker said local law enforcement ignored an incident involving a motorist who failed to stop for the Head Start bus that had its flashing lights on, indicating children were about leave the bus. He said the motorist pulled around the bus, simply in a rush to park in front of it, which could have endangered the children. When Head Start officials filed a complaint, he said the matter was dropped.
"They acted like they put it on a different file and couldn't find it."
Other tribal members told the sheriff he doesn't have any right to be on tribal trust land. The sheriff, who said he often gives the elderly rides home, said he plans to continue even if it is tribal trust land.
Alice Young, Oglala Lakota, pointed out that names of tribal members on the county's court dockets appear to be disproportionate to those of non-Indian offenders listed.
A local weekly newspaper was passed around which showed a list of names on the docket earlier this year that was largely composed of American Indian offenders.
Mary Poor Thunder, a district committee chairwoman, said the local paper has since stopped running the lengthy docket. She said the sheriff declined to appear before the committee earlier this year, after he received a phone call from the state Attorney General's Office that suggested he would be harmed he did appear.
Poor Thunder said no threats were made against the sheriff and that community members only wanted a forum to air grievances.
"We invited them all to sit down with us and none of them showed," she said of the county commissioners.
"I think we have to take the initiative."
Poor Thunder, a Martin resident, said her community members are just starting to document incidents that have been a clear violation of civil rights and while the commissioners didn't appear for the community meeting, allowing the complaints to be aired gave them hope that more will be done.
"It's a start. In the early 1970s when the American Indian Movement was strong, they came in and helped us, but it has become the same as before," Poor Thunder said.
The group plans to enlist civil rights organizations and the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate profiling issues, she said.
At least one tribal member complained of being falsely accused of possession and use of a controlled substance while staying in the home of a family member - a claim, she said, was unfounded.
"I was fined for possession of marijuana and use of marijuana. I don't even do it. I asked for a urine analysis and nobody ever gave me one," Tillie Dubray said.
Dubray, who was staying at her mother's home which was raided in September, said she was charged with the offense even though there was no proof a couple of roaches laying on the kitchen table belonged to her. Dubray was in the home with her two children when the officer arrived.
"If you were sitting there and there was some marijuana sitting there ... you are the only one in the house, you are going to get charged with it," the sheriff said.
Dubray said the marijuana cigarettes didn't belong to her.
Terry Bettelyoun, who has lived in Martin for seven years, has had numerous brushes with local law enforcement including traffic stops while driving without a license. Bettelyoun's most recent traffic stop on April 13 landed him two citations for driving without a license and the ingesting of solvents or other substance.
The 47-year-old tribal member who led the group into the meeting, showed his traffic tickets which he said were written after an officer followed his car from a liquor store as he was driving home.
Although Bettelyoun said he hadn't opened the bottle, the sheriff said he was stopped because a headlight was out on his car and he had driven through a traffic signal while the light was red.
During the stop Bettelyoun was required to take a field sobriety test and later agreed to urine test for the presence of marijuana, the sheriff said.
Although the bottle was still sealed, the sheriff asked him if he had been drinking and Bettelyoun responded he hadn't. But Waterbury told the commissioners he smelled what seemed to be the aroma of marijuana on Bettelyoun, so he probed further, asking him if he had smoked marijuana.
During questioning Bettelyoun admitted to smoking a joint and was cited for the offense along with failure to have a valid driver's license.
While he admits he drives without a license and drinks, he said he doesn't use drugs other than those prescribed for a heart condition.
Bettelyoun said police have videotaped his home, which he considers an invasion of his privacy, and have followed him through town even when he is on foot.
"They branded me as a drug dealer and I don't sell. I may drink, but I never use drugs ... Sunday I was walking down to my nephew's apartment and the cops drove by twice. I guess that's police harassment."
The sheriff told commissioners marijuana was found during a drug raid at Bettelyoun's home more than two years ago.
"We had a search warrant and we found marijuana in your house that night. That search warrant is still on record. The ticket you got the Friday night was for ingesting marijuana," he said.
"We've heard your complaint and I really don't feel they are harassing you," said Gary Niess, commission chairman.
Commissioners disagreed with claims that American Indian people are the only people arrested in the county and they suggested the laws were being enforced fairly.
"We've heard your complaints and we will look into them. I think if there is a problem, we can do what is necessary to correct it," the chairman said.