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Nancy Marie Spears
Gaylord News

Oklahoma tribal public safety officials say the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt ruling is strengthening momentum for improvements to public safety infrastructure in their police departments.

The Choctaw and Muscogee nations have hired additional public safety officers and are entering into more cross-deputization agreements with tribal, state and federal agencies.

Choctaw Public Safety has hired 30 additional public safety officers since application of the McGirt decision on the Choctaw reservation, according to Michael Hall, the tribe’s executive director of public safety. The nation now employs 80 officers to patrol the 11,000-square-mile reservation.

The Choctaw Nation also has entered into cross-deputization agreements with 68 state, federal and local law enforcement agencies, Hall said.

The tribe has reported an influx in calls to police since McGirt.

"I think they've almost doubled because when you really stop and reality check on it and think of it prior to McGirt, it's almost like a light switch was flipped on,” Choctaw Chief of Police Jesse Petty said.

(Previous: Oklahoma tribes, governor still at odds over McGirt)

McGirt came out of a July 2020 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark McGirt v. Oklahoma case, affirming the Muscogee Nation’s Reservation boundaries. The decision confirmed that under the Major Crimes Act, tribes have jurisdiction to prosecute crimes on Indigenous lands.

Muscogee Nation Director of Communications Jason Salsman said the McGirt decision necessitated building the capacity of the tribe’s police force.

“We have increased our Lighthorse tribal police department budget, doubled our officers, included more facilities in our master plan, and have added a mobile command unit used in collaborative efforts with fellow agencies for work in the field where we have several on the ground,” Salsman said.

The Muscogee Nation now has more than 75 officers on patrol -- in pre-McGirt days, those numbers were in the 40s.

Cross-deputization agreements with neighboring police agencies by the Muscogee Nation have gone from 39 to more than 60 agreements, Salsman said.

Cross deputizations “are the key component” to maintaining public safety in the Muscogee Nation, Salsman said. The agreements essentially create widespread policing across the reservation no matter what agency a law enforcement officer is with.

Salsman said the tribe actively pursues and relies on cross-deputization agreements staying in place to maintain consistent policing on the tribe’s lands.

“They are extremely helpful in the immediate because it allows us to keep the peace while having the time needed to build resources and greater infrastructure,” Salsman said.

Hall said cross-deputizing in Choctaw Nation helps strengthen the knowledge and capabilities of people operating under the agreements when it comes to dealing with policing in tribal territory.

“I'd say it's a plus rather than a hindrance,” Petty said. “Having the ability to work together through departments within the communities Choctaw Nation is spread out through, the way I see it playing out is it's an ability for everybody to combine resources.”

Salsman said he thinks the McGirt decision “bolsters every aspect of law enforcement on our reservation.”

“It calls on us to all pull together and work for the good of our reservation, our communities and our state,” Salsman said. “There are more opportunities to have more police, more resources and more funding when we all combine. A post-McGirt world has allowed us to do that.”

Oklahoma. Supreme Court. McGirt v. Oklahoma. Carpenter v. Murphy. Sharp v. Murphy.

Indian law attorney Kevin R. Kemper said the jurisdictional issues in Indian Country prosecutions existed long before McGirt and related decisions affirmed reservation boundaries among Oklahoma tribes and gave tribes jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed on tribal lands.

Kemper said that around 1990-1991, there was a homicide in a small town in southern Oklahoma where he lived. He said he heard “loud commotion and sirens” from a nearby bar about a block from his house. He said he later learned a stabbing had occurred.

“A Chickasaw man was accused of knifing someone else,” Kemper said. “He fled to tribal lands so that a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent would arrest him and not the local sheriff. So we’ve had these jurisdictional issues for a long time.”

While McGirt-related issues do exist in other states, it’s more focused on Oklahoma’s Indian Country, Kemper said.

“I become frustrated when I hear rhetoric, implying that McGirt is just freeing a bunch of violent criminals,” Kemper said. “That's not how it is playing out in the real world. The federal government and even some tribal governments are going after people that are accused of violence most aggressively.”

McGirt, Kemper said, invites state, federal and tribal officials to work together as Oklahomans to respect the rights of everyone.

Salsman said the Muscogee Nation’s plans for public safety upgrades include more officers, more cross-deputation agreements, more prosecutors, investigators, judges and courtrooms and better facilities for the Lighthorse Police.

“There has never been a greater opportunity to make our people safer, with more,” Salsman said.

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Nancy Marie Spears, a Gaylord News reporter based in Washington, is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. For more stories from Gaylord News visit GaylordNews.net.