A Montana Family Speaks Out About Police Violence Against Indigenous People

Jan 22, 2021
Originally published on January 26, 2021 4:22 pm

This is the second story in the Mountain West News Bureau series "Elevated Risk," a project powered by America Amplified, a public radio initiative.

Cole Stump was a Montanan, through and through. The 29-year-old citizen of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe was raised on the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation in the north-central part of the state and had family ties to the Fort Peck Reservation in the northeast corner. He was a loving father of five and a skilled ranch hand.

"He spent a lot of time breaking horses. He loved being a cowboy," said his sister Tonya Stump on a group video call with relatives in late December. "He loved horses. If he could be around a horse, he would." 

"We always had fun when Cole was around. He was always laughing, always teasing," said Wendy Jones, another of Stump's sisters, before his mother Vina Stump interjects with a memory. 

"And he would play dress-up, even with his girls," she said. "He would let his daughters do makeovers on him. He would wear the fingernail polish and the makeup." 

Laughter erupted on the call, a rare moment of levity for the family that's been mired in emotional pain and uncertainty since Stump's death at the hands of police just three months ago. 

We know that police enact disproportionate amounts of violence, including deadly force, on Black and Brown Americans. Accurate data on Indigenous people is difficult to come by. But even the incomplete data that's available is alarming, showing that Indigenous people are among the highest risk groups in the Mountain West for police violence. 

In Montana, Indigenous people make up roughly 6% of the population, but 9% of police killings, and that's likely an undercount.

Cole Stump's eldest sister Tasheena Duran has taken the lead trying to piece together what happened. 

"I've been in contact with the [Yellowstone] County Attorney's office, the Billings PD records department, the detective from Billings PD, I've contacted the coroner," Duran said. But those agencies say they can't release much information while the case is under investigation. "I've gone through all these steps and they just stonewall. They don't ever want to release anything." 

Here's what we do know. 

In the weeks before Stump's death, his relatives say he was staying with a friend at an apartment complex in Billings. He was working under the hood of a car in the parking area on the night of October 12 when four police officers arrived responding to a call from a neighbor reporting "suspicious activity." 

"And when the officers attempted to detain, question and pat him down for weapons and put him in handcuffs for safety purposes, he refused to cooperate and comply," said Billings Police Chief Rich St. John during a press conference the following day. 

It's not clear why officers were trying to physically detain and arrest Stump, but St. John said doing so was a struggle. He said the officers were able to maneuver him face down on the ground, but couldn't unpin Stump's arms from under his body. 

"At some point during the struggle, [Stump] was able to pull a semi-automatic handgun from his waistband area and point it at the officers," said St. John. "Officers disengaged and two fired multiple rounds, striking [Stump]." 

Duran doesn't buy that story.

"My brother's not a very big guy," Duran said, estimating that Stump weighed about 140 pounds at the time of his death. "How were they not able to subdue him? How did they not have the de-escalation techniques to stop this?" 

Chairman Harlan Baker of the Chippewa Cree Tribe is also skeptical. Shortly after Stump was killed, he wrote a letter to the Montana's attorney general calling for an outside investigation into the case, rather than the planned investigation by the Billings Police Department itself. 

"Continually, [Billings police officers] appear to inflict injury out of anger at the individuals rather than the need to protect public safety," Baker wrote, citing the killing of two other Indigenous men by the department since 2017. 

He asked that the investigation determine why the department initiated or escalated each confrontation, whether the officers perceive Indigenous people as uniquely threatening, and whether they handle tense situations involving people of color with higher levels of force and aggression. 

Melanie Yazzie believes Baker's questions are worth investigating. She's a citizen of the Navajo Nation, and a professor of Native American studies at the University of New Mexico. She studies police violence and the racial dynamics of reservation border towns, like Billings. 

Most of these towns, she said, originally sprung up as military and trading outposts as the United States was colonizing the West. 

"They were engaged in Indian wars," she said. "They were engaged in incredibly violent warfare against Native people who were trying to hold on to their land and practice their ways of life against an encroaching empire." 

Fast forward 150 years or so, and Yazzie said these towns are still hotbeds of resentment, hostility and violence towards Indigenous people. 

"The police are here to police that border," she said. "We're not supposed to be off the reservation. We're supposed to be in our place. And the minute you stop doing that you immediately become a threat and need to be policed." 

Lieutenant Brandon Wooley with the Billings Police Department doesn't see it that way. 

"I won't sit here and tell you that officers don't get frustrated dealing with people that make bad decisions," Wooley said. "To say that they do it specifically to a racial group, I don't believe that that's occurring." 

Wooley is well-versed in case law that protects American police officers' right to use deadly force when they're being threatened. Indigenous or not, he said anyone should expect retaliation if they brandish a weapon at an officer. 

"We've got to recognize that officers have a right to defend themselves," Wooley said. "If they're being attacked or there's a threat to them, they are allowed to defend themselves or others in the area. 

The department's own data show Indigenous people are overrepresented in its arrests and use of force incidents. But Wooley said they're also more likely to be victims of crime in Billings. He believes all of those things are connected. 

"And that's a conversation that needs to be had," Wooley said. "We have to talk about the substance abuse. We have to talk about the mental health issues. We have to talk about the education rates. We have to talk about the poverty. That's the social stuff that, when it breaks down, leads to interaction with law enforcement." 

He said that "social stuff" is a symptom of historical trauma in tribal communities – something he believes law enforcement has no control over and isn't equipped to address. 

It's that sentiment that's driven a movement across the U.S. to redirect funding away from police departments and into social programs. But Wooley said cutting police funding in border towns would be a mistake. 

"When we get to the bottom of this conversation, the Native American culture doesn't need less policing. They truly need more policing," he said. 

Angeline Cheek, an Indigenous Justice organized with the ACLU of Montana, resents that comment. 

"With a statement like that, it's no wonder that our Indigenous people are being killed at such high rates," she said. 

Cheek is a citizen of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes. She said Montana can't police its way out of this problem. 

"We don't need more policing," she said. "To strengthen the safety and wellbeing of all Indigenous people in Montana, we need equitable distribution of resources and the recognition of long standing treaty rights."

Tasheena Duran remains hyper-focused on her brother's case, spending much of her free time trying to track down information and push for accountability at the Billings Police Department. 

In December, she led a march through Box Elder, Cole Stump's hometown on the Rocky Boy's Reservation, to honor his life. She's planning another march in Billings in the coming weeks. Whatever happened between him and the police, she said his story shouldn't be swept under the rug.

"It seems like, being Native, that they consider us disposable," Duran said. "So shooting one more, what's that? You know, no one cares. No one seems to care." 

It's possible she'll get some more information soon. The Billings Police Department and the Yellowstone County Attorney are currently wrapping up their investigation into Stump's death. The officers were not wearing body cameras when they killed Stump, but according to the department, some audio and video of the incident was recorded by police cruiser dash cameras. 

An FAQ about this series and the data behind it can be found here.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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