A 2020 Supreme Court decision returned policing and prosecutions to tribal authorities, and the Muscogee Nation's tribal police want to interact differently with the community.



A U.S. Supreme Court decision 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. From member station KOSU, Allison Herrera reports on what that responsibility looks like on the ground.

ALLISON HERRERA, BYLINE: It's a Friday night, and Muscogee Nation Lighthorse Police officer Amy Bennett is getting ready to go out on her shift.



BENNETT: Going to be 197.

HERRERA: Bennett is sitting in her police car outside the River Spirit Casino near downtown Tulsa.

BENNETT: Well, we already have a call, so we're going to head that way.

HERRERA: What's our call?

BENNETT: Well, the first one is harassment.

HERRERA: In the small town of Sapulpa about 20 minutes away.

BENNETT: This lady says she's being harassed by a male subject. We're going to go over there, see what's going on.

HERRERA: We head there to check on the woman who called in. It turns out the man she called about has broken into her house before, and she's afraid for her safety. A judge issues a restraining order, and Bennett serves it to the man and warns him that she will arrest him if he violates it.

BENNETT: OK. So I just - I think for this for right now, since this is an emergency...

HERRERA: 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 more officers and prosecutors to meet law enforcement demands.

TRENT SHORES: And they can look at what has worked and what hasn't worked.

HERRERA: That's former U.S. Attorney Trent Shores. He oversaw hundreds of prosecutions after the Supreme Court decision took effect.

SHORES: They can look at their own culture and experience in policing Native American communities...

HERRERA: Shores says Muscogee Nation is in a unique moment.

SHORES: ...I think to best develop a community-oriented policing structure that focuses as much on prevention as it does on enforcement.

HERRERA: One of the tribal prosecutors for the Muscogee Nation is Stacy Leeds. She says the discussion of how to police differently has been going on for years, even before the Supreme Court weighed in.

STACY LEEDS: 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 system.

HERRERA: Different by investing more in mental health and domestic violence prevention programs - Muscogee Nation just spent millions of dollars in both of those areas, problems the Lighthorsemen deal with all the time. But with all these services comes a bigger price tag. Jason Salsman, who works for the Muscogee Nation, says the federal government needs to step up.

JASON SALSMAN: We are saying honor the trust, responsibility to tribes - this is the way it is. The Supreme Court has spoken.

HERRERA: Muscogee Nation leaders recently spoke with members of Congress, asking them to fully fund their tribal justice system.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Ten-four, sir. One-eleven contacted me.

HERRERA: Back on patrol, Officer Bennett says she wants to police differently. She does everything she can to avoid deadly force. She wishes more officers would do the same.

BENNETT: I don't care how bad that person is. I don't want to take them from their family.

HERRERA: For now, that means more training, more conversation and more understanding between officers like Amy Bennett and her off-reservation law enforcement counterparts.

For NPR News, I'm Allison Herrera in Tulsa, Okla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


An earlier version of this story mistakenly described Stacy Leeds as a tribal prosecutor. She is a tribal judge.