When an Ashland County Sheriff deputy lethally shot 14-year-old Ojibwe boy Jason Pero, many residents of the Bad River Reservation demanded answers for what appeared an unjustified use of force. But to members of the Bad River Band of the Ojibwe nation, Pero’s death was one horrific incident in a long history of police depredations by an police force that harms instead of protects them.
For BuzzFeed, John Stanton reports from Ashland, Wisconsin, one of many towns whose law enforcement agency has jurisdiction over a neighboring Native American reservation and has fostered tensions. In Ashland, a correctional officer allegedly preyed on female Native American inmates before committing suicide, a deputy shot another young Ojibwe man, and instead of trying to offer answers or consolation to Jason Pero’s family, the Sheriff tried to control the media narrative around Pero’s death. Tribes overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs often hold that Federal agency in equally low standing. Poor police relationships are themselves shaped by the cultural divides between residents of reservations and adjacent white communities, who frequently know little about tribal culture other than broad brush strokes or inherited stereotypes.
Like many groups, the Ojibwe learn to avoid the police. So when the police are breaking the law, who are they supposed to go to, and why would they ever believe things will improve? As one tribe member put it, “This has been going on for 300 years…”
On a per-capita basis, Native Americans are 12% more likely to be killed by law enforcement officers than black Americans — and three times more likely than white Americans.
If you live on one of the dozens of reservations across the country in which local, white police forces from nearby border towns have jurisdiction, the chances that you’ll end up in jail are high. In Ashland County, for instance, Native Americans make up 11% of the population but account for 44% of the inmates in the county jail, according to data collected by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit criminal justice research and reform group.
For tribal leaders here and across the country, that leads to one conclusion. “That becomes a disproportionality that speaks to some sort of institutionalized injustice going on,” says Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins.