On May 28, just one week before the election in which she was running for mayor of Rapid City, South Dakota, Cheyenne River Sioux member Natalie Stites-Means received a knock on the door. When she opened it she was greeted by police in full tactical gear, one of whom was carrying a riot shield.
“They were looking for my stepson,” Stites-Means told Indian Country Today. “He had a felony warrant out for his arrest on a non-violent offense. I hadn’t seen him in weeks, but the lead officer, John Edwards, told me they’d received a tip from one of my neighbors saying he’d been here.”
The officers asked if they could enter her house and search it. They were members of the Joint Fugitive Task Force that included several U.S. Marshals and Pennington County Sheriffs. Stites-Means looked them right in the eye and said no. She told them “if they didn’t have a search warrant, they couldn’t come in.”
“My 5-year-old was sleeping in the room and I’m like, no, police aren’t coming inside to search my house. I had half my campaign team meeting here, too, including a 13-year-old who was doing media, producing a video about the campaign. So what could have erupted, could have been tragic and terrible. Thankfully it wasn’t.”
Campaign sabotage or a deeper issue?
At first, Stites-Means says she wondered if the incident was evidence of an attempt to sabotage her run for mayor against White incumbent Steve Allender.
“I was skeptical of their motivations. I was skeptical of the tips. I was skeptical of the timing and I was skeptical of whether or not they intended to create a media incident that would have been harmful to my campaign.”
On June 5, she experienced another unrelated law enforcement encounter when a Rapid City police officer and a cadet showed up on her doorstep, this time looking for a stolen iPhone. The unnamed victim told police the phone had been traced to her address. Without verifying this, the officers came to retrieve it. Stites-Means knew nothing about the phone and as far as she knows, it was never found.
“I thought, ‘So now Rapid City police are chasing down peoples’ stolen iPhones? What a waste of city resources!’” Stites-Means said.
Stites-Means waited until after the election, which she lost by a three-to-one margin to Allender before she recounted the incidents in a Facebook post.
“I decided to post it on social media because that last week campaigning we heard from a lot of people who are scared of the cops. We heard from a lot of people who have been mistreated by law enforcement or who are buried by law enforcement demands.”
Chief Jegeris responds
Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris responded to Stites-Means’ comments in a recent phone interview with Indian Country Today.
“The incident regarding the warrant arrest, she [Stites-Means] does have a close family member that is living with her or is reported to be living with her who did have a felony drug arrest. And at the time we were there we outlined that situation, but since then we actually had a major apprehension of him and what I mean by that is it involved a pursuit and he threw a loaded Glock pistol out the window during the pursuit. He threw out a ballistic vest during the pursuit and it’s quite a dangerous situation.
“Secondly, the stolen iPhone that was traced to her house, she [Stites-Means] did complain about that previously and I reviewed that situation and what I observed was a very friendly contact with the police officer who did a very good job of verbally deescalating the situation. She was very agitated and at the end of it she shook the officer’s hand and I think it, in my mind, was a very good contact.”
Stites-Means took issue with Chief Jegeris’ description of her being “very agitated.” In an email response, she said,
“I was not ‘very agitated’ and I resent that narrative coming from the police chief because he was not present. My witnesses would counter that I was not agitated in any way. Agitated seems to often be the first step characterization in the use of force justification for police – and the use of force is disproportionately involved in encounters between Native American women and the RCPD here in this city.”
Chief Jegeris made additional negative comments about Stites-Means that seemed to imply she suffered from historical trauma.
“I would tell you,” he said, “that in my opinion, the majority of the Native American community has a high degree of respect for our department. We have several members of the Native American community working for our department. However, we are aware that there is historic trauma and that there is deep-rooted anger and even hate. And I would tell you that Mrs. Means’ behavior displays that she is extremely distrustful and she is divisive in her way of going about business. She is divisive between the policing community and that’s the opposite of the approach we're trying to take as a department.”
Stites-Means feels this spinning of the narrative by projecting psychological states onto Native citizens is a technique Rapid City Police use to deflect attention from unfair police practices, a technique commonly called “gaslighting.”
But Stites-Means believes you have to look no further than her stepson’s arrest to find an example of the disproportionate level of policing that happens in the Native American community.
How her stepson’s arrest went down
According to a press release provided by Rapid City Police, on June 21 Stites-Means’ stepson, whose name is being withheld as a courtesy to the family, was seen driving a car “with only one functioning headlight.” When an officer attempted to pull the car over, it sped away. A chase ensued during which two occupants exited the vehicle and a Glock handgun and a ballistic vest was thrown out of the car at that time.
The car sped off and was chased to a residence (not Stites-Means’.) A police helicopter with thermal imaging reported seeing Stites-Means’ stepson run into the house. Other units arrived and formed a perimeter around it. The stepson ran out the back door and was apprehended almost immediately.
In addition to the warrant he already had for his arrest, the 21-year-old stepson was charged with Aggravated Eluding, DUI, Possession of a Controlled Substance, Commission of a Felony with a Firearm, Possession of a Firearm with a Prior Felony Drug Conviction, and Possession of Marijuana.
Stites-Means points out that her stepson’s original warrant was for a non-violent drug offense. She feels it shouldn’t have taken SWAT teams and helicopters to arrest him. Yet a tremendous amount of energy and manpower were used, potentially endangering the community.
Additionally, six more charges were then piled on top of the ones he already had, virtually guaranteeing a prison sentence if convicted. And all because an intoxicated young man got spooked and booked on the cops.
This disproportionate level of policing within the Native American community points to a systemic problem, according to Stites-Means.
“These are structural and systemic issues that all of us are caught in the web of. Pennington County has one of the highest incarceration rates in the United States. One out of six people has contact with the criminal justice system in this county according to the last data I read. It is huge here.
“About 30 percent of the economy is reliant on government employment, so certainly there’s a strong public investment in law enforcement generally and in criminal justice, that means jobs for a lot of people.”
Stites-Means feels this deeply embedded systemic racism is hard to see unless you become actively caught-up in it as she has. Then it becomes obvious just how difficult it is to escape.
“It takes a hell of a lot of wherewithal on an individual level to withstand or overcome that systemic or bureaucratic goal. What are our institutional leaders saying? What are our political leaders saying? What are our professional communities saying? What we’re facing here in Rapid City doesn’t bode well for a civil society. I think my two little incidents are part of that.”
Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle. He now resides in Washington, D.C.