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 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.
“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.