Photo by Democracy Now!
November 11, 2017

Native Lives Matter: The Overlooked Police Brutality Against Native Americans

Eliza Racine

On Nov. 8th, following a 911 call reporting a man wielding a knife, 14 year old Jason Pero was fatally shot twice in front of his grandparents’ home in Odanah, WI and later pronounced dead at Ashland’s Memorial Medical Center. Wisconsin investigators claim Jason made the call and described himself, and that a butcher knife was found at the scene. The deputy responsible for Jason’s death, Brock Mrdjenovich, was put on paid administrative leave.

Jason’s family is left with few answers and much skepticism surrounding his death. According to a report from Wisconsin’s Department of Justice, Jason refused to drop the knife and “lunged” twice at Deputy Mrdjenovich. However, Jason left school earlier that day sick with the flu, and this behavior contradicts the testaments to kind-hearted boy his family and friends knew and loved.

“I know that lunging could also mean taking a step. It’s all on what words they want to include in their report.,” said Holly Gauthier, Jason’s mother to CNN. "It's almost like they are trying to make my 14-year-old boy look like a man, and he did not. He had a baby face and a boy's voice."

Gauthier’s suspicion surround the circumstances around her child’s death come as no surprise, especially when the investigators appear to be hiding major details. There is little to no logic in why a fully-trained officer felt threatened by an ill teenager — much less why said teenager would describe himself as a potentially dangerous suspect. Unfortunately, Jason became the latest name in the trend of growing violence against Native Americans by law enforcement.

The Shocking Numbers

Native Americans are disproportionately killed by the police. The number of Native Americans killed by law enforcement increased from 13 in 2015 to 24 in 2016, as reported by The Counted, a project on The Guardian which reports on police killings. Fatal Encounters, another database that covers instances of police brutality, reports that 18 Native Americans were killed so far in 2017; this number, though, does not include Jason’s death. While these may not seem like high numbers, but with the Native American population at only a little over 5 million, the statistics are alarmingly high.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) spanning from 1999 to 2015, for every one million Native Americans, an average of 2.9 of them are killed by law enforcement — the highest rate of any racial group in the U.S. Natives also have a mortality rate 12 percent higher than African Americans and three times higher than white Americans. Similarly, many deaths are likely underreported due to people of mixed race — or even forgetting to mention race — struggling with homelessness, or being on a reservation in remote areas with limited resources.

Similarly, according to FiveThirtyEight, while Native American nations are sovereign, 70 percent of them are under legal authority of nearby police departments because the tribal courts do not have the power to prosecute major felonies or anyone who isn’t a tribal member. Most of these tribes do not have the budget for media resources to properly report outside the reservations or gain attention from outside media to report further in depth.

The lack of resources have also contributed to a fourth of the Native American population living in poverty, leading to high rates in other issues like unemployment, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and many others which lead up to unfair incarceration which is 38 percent higher than the national average for Native Americans, many of which who are youth in for low offense crimes like theft. These problems do not go unnoticed, as the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has put Native American programs like the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Indian Health Service (IHS) on the high risk list which notes their susceptibility to mismanagement and desperately in need of change.

Excessive Force When Help was Needed

If the excessive force against a teenager was not terrifying enough, there are far too many previous instances of trigger-happy police officer who fail to de-escalate a situation, particularly when someone is mentally ill, and immediately resort to the kill shot.

Back in July 2015, Denver police shot and killed Paul Castaway who they said was charging at them with a knife. However, other eyewitness accounts and a surveillance video showed he was holding the knife to his own neck, and the 911 call his mother made said he was mentally ill and drunk. Castaway was only a danger to himself, but the police thought shooting him in the chest was the quicker solution instead of helping him. 

Just earlier this year in June, Zachary Bearheels was killed in custody of Omaha police who repeatedly tased and beat him. His mother, Renita Chalepah, called police when he failed to come home and told them he suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and was likely off his medications. Although the police agreed to take him to a bus station, they ended up killing Bearheels when they could not control him. This does not help that the American Civil Liberties Union found that the Omaha Police Department does not have clear guidelines on when it is appropriate to use a taser on people with mental health problems who are taking medication or under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Unfortunately, Native Americans also have the highest rates of mental illness among minority populations, with more than 21 percent of the population diagnosed with some mental illness according to Mental Health America. With severely insufficient mental health services for Native Americans on and off the reservation system, it becomes a major factor in potentially-fatal encounters with police. According to Treatment Advocacy Center’s report, Overlooked in the Undercounted, people with serious untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement.

While little is still known about Jason Pero’s death, it is one which cannot be swept under the rug or let fallacies justify killing a 14-year-old child. It is a part of major problems for Native Americans in combatting law enforcement, which is becoming more violent, and finding help for severe mental health problems when the resources for such are lacking. These systems are broken and need to be fixed, and they cannot proceed until the American government finally gets that Native Lives Matter.

To read more about police brutality in Native American communities, please take a look at our Feb. 2015 report Native Lives Matter.