Lighthorse Police Accept New Challenges, New Responsibilities With Expanded Jurisdiction
A U.S. Supreme Court decision from last year has changed law enforcement in the state of Oklahoma. That decision restored tribal authority to both police crimes and prosecute criminals. It’s also led to greater responsibility for Muscogee Nation officers, known as Lighthorsemen.
On a recent Friday night, Lighthorse Police Officer Amy Bennett was in the parking lot of the River Spirit Casino near downtown Tulsa. The area is already bustling with traffic and people headed into the casino for a night out.
Bennett is 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.
"The handcuffs represent law enforcement, but the rose is to show my softer side," explained Bennett as we get into her police cruiser and head out on our first call of the night.
Before the McGirt v. Oklahoma Supreme Court decision in July 2020 that extended the jurisdiction of Lighthorse Police, Bennett mostly patrolled Tribal properties like the casino.
"This lady said she's being harassed by a male subject, so we're going to go there, see what's going on," Bennett said.
It turns out, the man she called about has broken into her house before, and she's afraid for her safety. After the paperwork is filed, Bennett calls a judge who issues a victim protection order, or VPO.
Lighthorse officers like Bennett now patrol 11 counties in Oklahoma. It's a small police force — just 63 officers total and a dispatch team. The Tribal Nation is looking to hire even 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 the U.S. Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma and the national conversation around police reform.
"They can look at their own culture and experience and policing Native American communities to best develop a community oriented policing structure that focuses as much on prevention as it does on enforcement," said Trent Shores, a Choctaw citizen and former U.S. Attorney.
Shores oversaw hundreds of prosecutions after the McGirt v. Oklahoma decision.
"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," said Stacy Leeds, a Muscogee Nation judge.
Leeds says Tribal Nations have a more holistic approach because they have more flexibility and don’t have to treat criminal complaints as an isolated incident.
"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 said. "Maybe there are social services that are being provided across different platforms within the tribe."
Leeds, who has served as a judge for several Tribal Nations, says the racial and ethnic makeup of the court system matters too.
"I just think about day-to-day in a Tribal court when you have Native judges, Native prosecutors, Native public defenders, Native victims, service people, and all of the parties involved in that case are Native...it's just a different environment and a different context," said Leeds.
Muscogee Nation also has the capacity to offer mental health treatment to citizens who otherwise would end up in the criminal justice system.
The Tribe also has a nationally recognized domestic violence prevention program, and in April, they broke ground on a 6,000 square foot facility to treat substance abuse.
Domestic violence and those with mental health issues are ones that officer Bennett deals with a lot when she's out on patrol.
Increased Services Come with Increased Price Tag
"We are saying [the federal government needs to] honor the trust responsibility to tribes," said Jason Salsman, Muscogee Nation Press Secretary. "This is the way it is, the Supreme Court has spoken."
Muscogee Nation, Choctaw Nation and Seminole Nation met with Congressional leaders asking them to fully fund their tribal justice systems in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling that reaffirmed their reservation boundaries.
Before the ruling, the Lighthorsemen were primarily taking care of things on Tribal lands and on properties like the River Spirit Casino. The caseload was much smaller.
Salsman says Muscogee Nation has already doubled its Lighthorse Police force and their cross deputization agreements-which allow both non-tribal and Lighthorse police to respond to calls. They've also committed nearly $7 million towards their criminal justice system.
More Responsibility, More Chance for Reform
Salsman stresses that Lighthorse officers are talking about reform and getting to the root of the problem of the crimes that occur, and before it's too late. These are services for both tribal and non-tribal citizens.
"Now instead of just falling through the cracks and leading to a tough life where they turn to a lot of things to fill that void of emptiness that has been left in them by the abuse, now they have their nation to turn to with behavioral health resources and professionals and doctors on hand that are specifically trained in that field," said Salsman.
When officer Bennett goes out on patrol, she says she wants to police differently. She does everything she can to avoid deadly force. She wishes more officers would do the same.
Bennett says when she does pull someone over for a broken taillight or expired tags, she is overly kind and jokes with them to ease the tension. Sometimes, she doesn't issue a ticket at all.
"I don't care how bad a person is, I don't want to take them from their family," she said.
For now, that means more training, more conversation and more understanding between officers like Bennett and her off-reservation law enforcement counterparts.
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