When top members of the National Sheriffs’ Association met with President Trump in the White House on Tuesday morning, one of their chief requests was for federal help dealing with demonstrators at the Dakota Access pipeline site in North Dakota.
Protesters have been camped there since April, and local law enforcement feels stymied by the protesters’ ability to retreat to reservations — federal land where police and sheriff’s deputies have no jurisdiction, Sheriff Paul Laney of Cass County, N.D., told reporters Tuesday night.
Now the Trump administration has cleared the way for construction to resume on the controversial pipeline, and more conflict with protesters is expected. With the support of other sheriffs from across the country, Laney met with Trump and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly to seek help from Customs and Border Patrol agents, U.S. marshals, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, as well as a stronger response from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“That, we feel, would alleviate a lot of issues,” Laney said. Greg Champagne, sheriff of St. Charles Parish, La., and president of the association, and Carolyn Welsh, sheriff of Chester County, Pa., were among the sheriffs who backed Laney’s request for federal assistance.
Laney said Trump and Kelly did not commit to additional federal help with the protesters during the meeting but that the president was “very well aware” of the Dakota pipeline tensions. “We feel very confident that our requests have been heard and are being considered.” He said requests were made to the Obama administration for months and were denied.
The protests are occurring in Morton County, N.D., which Laney said has a full-time law enforcement staff of 33. Protesters have numbered in the thousands, and though most are peaceful, “a large component is very violent, very confrontational,” Laney said. He said he and his deputies have been working at the protest full time since August.
Law enforcement is not there “to take a side,” Laney said, “just to protect life and property.” He said protesters launch sometimes violent attacks, including killing of livestock or intimidation of motorists, and then retreat to the federal reservation. “We’re county personnel, we can’t go in there,” Laney said. He said the National Guard was on the scene, and “we hopefully will see federal agents helping police.”
Cody Hall, a member of the Lakota tribe who has been active in the pipeline protests, said if federal agents are sent to North Dakota, “they’re gonna bring trumped-up charges. They’re going to use this to say the water protectors [protesters] are illegal in every form so they can bring the feds in, the ATF in.”
Hall noted that more than 700 people protesting the pipeline crossing under the Missouri River have been arrested and that police have used water cannons and dogs to respond to the demonstrations. North Dakota is also considering a law that would remove criminal liability for drivers who unintentionally strike protesters in the road, as well as bump up some protest violations from misdemeanors to felonies.
The sheriffs said they also raised issues with Trump about the housing of mentally ill inmates in jails, the exploding epidemic of opioid abuse, asset forfeiture, the issue of allowing local law enforcement to obtain military surplus equipment and the rapidity with which heroin is hitting the streets.
“He cares deeply about the safety and security of these citizens,” Welsh said of Trump. “He wants to hear from the people involved. He wants to get down to the fundamental understanding and fix it.”
During his meeting with the sheriffs, Trump said falsely said that the murder rate in America was “the highest it’s been in 47 years.” Association executive director Jonathan Thompson said he interpreted Trump’s comment to mean the rise in the murder rate from 2014 to 2015 was the largest single-year increase in 47 years, which is accurate, according to FBI statistics.
Trump also decried the high crime rate in Chicago, which Welsh agreed with. “It’s not a place where you can raise children or even live safely,” she said of the city.
Trump spoke to the full meeting of the sheriffs’ association Wednesday morning, raising many of the issues its leaders discussed with him at the White House on Tuesday.