The April 20th edition of Time Magazine contained an article written by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar titled, “Nothing Less Than an Assassination.” I was moved by the article and submitted following is a letter to the editor in response to it.
The training and culture that leads to shootings of unarmed individuals can be changed, as suggested by Abdul-Jabbar on page 31 of the April 20th edition. In 1976 the South Dakota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights held a community forum in Rapid City, the second largest city in the state, on the treatment of Native Americans in South Dakota. As a member of the panel conducting the hearings, I received a call from Art LaCroix, the longest serving mayor in Rapid City’s history and its first (and only) Native American mayor. He asked if it was possible that, “My police force could be doing those kinds of things.” My reply, “Sorry, but I think so, my friend.”
Mayor LaCroix fired the chief of police and hired a new chief, Tom Hennies, who established a program to carefully develop a culture and training process to address the issue. The next our three police chiefs, including the current, went through that development process.
On March 5th, two Rapid City officers were checking on an unrelated report when they were approached by a man who seemed to be reach in his pocket for a weapon and crouched in a firing stance. The officers drew their weapons and took cover, they then realized the man’s “weapon” didn’t have a barrel (they later discovered it was a cell phone) and ordered him to the ground. The incident ended without a weapon being fired. I can’t help but wonder if the man would have been instantly shot and killed had the incident happened in South Carolina, instead of South Dakota.
After someone read my letter to the editor they asked me if a majority of Lakota people would agree with my letter. I thought about it and replied that this is something that we need to ask and address. I expressed my hope that we will soon have elected officials with whom we can have a productive conversation around that question.