North Dakota is stretched thin in its battle to protect the Dakota Access pipeline construction: Costs are nearing $15 million, and police reinforcements are diminishing.
By Jenni Monet / 11.23.2016
Photos by Rob Wilson
Agents with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection will be the latest agency assisting Morton County Sheriff Department deputies to guard Dakota Access pipeline construction as it prepares to drill under the Missouri River. But as tensions mount, along with costs to keep up with militarized attacks on water protectors, there are signs that North Dakota’s resources are stretching thin.
Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier announced the aid of CBP officers Monday following the most violent confrontation yet near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Dozens of activists were hospitalized after Sunday night’s standoff when police sprayed water on hundreds of people in 26-degree temperatures and fired what has been described as concussion grenades. One activist, Sophia Wilansky, 21, may face the amputation of her arm.
Even before Sunday’s subfreezing assault on the Backwater Bridge, the escalating violence, the masses of arrests—528 as of Monday—and even the routine response to demonstrations were taking their toll on local agencies. The policing costs have reached nearly $15 million. The courts are taxed. The jail is burdened. The 34 local law enforcement officers are stressed.
All this comes amid an increasingly loud public outcry against the militarized policing.
Organized campaigns to contact the people and agencies responsible for sending officers and equipment to aid Morton County in the assaults on water protectors have in some cases been effective. YES! Magazine published that contact information Oct. 31, and in less than a month, the Facebook post had reached more than half a million people with commenters trading stories about their experiences making complaints. The article has been published by media worldwide.
It was intense public response that led Montana’s Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin to literally turn his detail around. He and his deputies were en route to Morton County when Gov. Steve Bullock raised concerns about the potential misuse of the interstate statute. The Emergency Management Assistance Compact obligates law enforcement around the country to fulfill requests for aid under any form of emergency or disaster.
“I got messages from England, Poland, New Zealand, Australia,” Gootkin recalled. And he received phone calls and hundreds of emails from his constituents, too — people that may have elected him sheriff. They were concerned about the use of force on protesters, Oct. 27, he said, and also had been affected by the public outrage from Minneapolis’ Hennepin County.
Gootkin said the callers and emailers believed the EMAC was meant for natural disasters and catastrophic events like 9/11, not for protecting a corporation’s pipeline construction. All that caused Sheriff Gootkin to change his mind. He turned to Facebook to post his decision to stand down on Standing Rock: “Although my actions were well-intentioned, you made it clear that you do not want your Sheriff’s Office involved in this conflict. One of the biggest differences of an elected Sheriff from other law enforcement leaders is that I am directly accountable to the people I serve (YOU).”
It was not an easy choice to make, Gootkin said. “I wanted to go and help my fellow law enforcement.” Then, he raised a question that has begun to rattle many communities across America lately. “I just don’t understand where we separated from the public. It really breaks my heart. We are not the enemy.”
Sheriff Dave Mahoney from Wisconsin’s Dane County was also empathetic to those decrying deployment of his officers. “All share the opinion that our deputies should not be involved in this situation,” Mahoney told the Bismarck Tribune. He and his unit stood by Morton County officers for one week before pulling out and refusing to return.
This week, the ACLU released the most comprehensive list of law enforcement participating in the conflict at Standing Rock, 75 agencies total, all believed to be operating under the EMAC agreement. The ACLU’s current list of agency support to Morton County can be found here.
Of the $15 million spent so far to protect the pipeline construction , $4.4 million has been spent by Morton County alone, officials said. The figure also includes more than $10 million in state emergency funds, according to Cecily Fong, spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services. Fong told the Associated Press that protest-related law enforcement costs reached $10.9 million dollars last week, including $6 million borrowed from the state-owned Bank of North Dakota in September and an additional $4 million on Nov. 1.
Now it seems likely that the state will need to request even more money from its Emergency Commission. In a press conference two days prior to Sunday’s violence, Gov. Jack Dalrymple expressed frustration in the ongoing police action against protesters. “We’re incurring expenses every day,” Dalrymple said.
The governor has pressed the Obama administration for federal aid in responding to the escalating conflict. He has suggested the U.S. Marshal Service step in to evict thousands of protectors who have occupied U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land. “They are camped without a permit,” Dalrymple said of those occupying the mass encampment near the Backwater Bridge blockade. “In other words, they’re there illegally.”
But the Obama administration has refused to do that, opting to sit down with the Standing Rock Sioux and negotiate a solution. It has asked that construction of the $3.8 billion pipeline stop until one is reached, but Energy Transfer has refused. It is now suing the federal government and meanwhile continuing to advance the pipeline.
With the absence of federal assistance, Morton County has had to rely on the EMAC and support from police agencies nationwide. Since early August, the sheriff’s department says that nearly 1,300 officers have come from 24 counties, 16 cities, across nine different states.
The farthest traveled was the president of the National Sheriff’s Association, Greg Champagne of St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. He arrived Oct. 28, the day after Morton County led its heavily militarized removal of occupants from the “1851 Treaty Camp.” In a lengthy post on Facebook, Champagne commended the multiagency action while taking special care to praise Minnesota’s Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek. He said they were “protecting lives and property” that day.
But in the aftermath of the violent Oct. 27 raid, the number of law enforcement agencies assisting Morton County has dwindled — in some instances, because of the pipeline‘s polarizing effect.
Minneapolis’ Hennepin County has received some of the loudest public outrage as taxpayers, voters, even state lawmakers turned out to denounce Sheriff Stanek’s decision to send Minnesota personnel and equipment to Standing Rock. “I do not have any control over the Sheriff’s actions, which I think were wrong,” said Lt. Gov. Tina Smith in a prepared statement. “I believe he should bring his deputies home, if he hasn’t already. I strongly support the rights of all people to peacefully protest, including, tonight, the Standing Rock protest.”
Following a nine-day stint in North Dakota, Sheriff Stanek said enlisting 29 of his deputies to serve on Morton County’s front lines was “the right thing to do.”
But he also said his deputies would not be returning.