Okemah PD, Sheriff’s Dept. adapting to new jurisdictional rules
By Ken Childers
The legal landscape of Okfuskee County has been altered with the recent Supreme Court ruling in the McGirt v. Oklahomacase, and local law enforcement officials say they’re having to change the way they do business.
On July 9, the court ruled that much of eastern Oklahoma – including Okfuskee County – is an Indian reservation and state prosecutors lack the authority to pursue charges against Native Americans for major crimes committed within the boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation (MCN). This means that jurisdiction in such cases now lies with federal or tribal authorities, and the Okemah Police Department and the Okfuskee County Sheriff’s Office are both trying to strike a balance between maintaining public peace and honoring tribal sovereignty.
“It’s kind of hectic, but we’re making it work. We still respond to calls and solve crimes, then we forward the case to the appropriate court,” Okemah Police Chief Ed Smith said. “Until we get clarification from the Supreme Court, this applies to all cases, even misdemeanors. We’re adapting to this as effectively as we can while still serving the citizens of Okemah.”
The Okemah Police Department has had a long-standing cross-deputization agreement with the MCN Lighthorse Police Department, but Okfuskee County Sheriff Jim Rasmussen said his office only recently entered into such an agreement with the nation.
“We’ve obtained individual commission cards for all of the deputies, so we’re all commissioned as Lighthorsemen,” Rasmussen said. “So if there’s a crime in progress, we can intervene and not have to wait on their response.”
Rasmussen said he is also working with the U.S. Attorney’s office to see if his deputies can be federally commissioned. “I’m reviewing an agreement to see if we meet the criteria for selective law enforcement commissioning. Our other option is be task force officers, which basically makes us part-time FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) agents. I’m trying to get one or two badges out of the FBI,” Rasmussen said on Monday.
According to Rasmussen, the U.S. Attorney’s office is sending extra FBI agents to the area, but his office will still be responding to calls. “We now have a 24-hour FBI number, but they’re not used to responding to crimes in progress – its a new thing to them. When we get there, it may end up being a tribal call or an FBI call, but we’ll be able to keep the peace in the meantime,” he said.
In addition to one for cross-deputization, Rasmussen said an agreement with MCN is needed to stay in compliance with the new jurisdictional rules.
“I’m working on a contract with the Creek Nation for incarceration at the Okfuskee County Jail,” Rasmussen said. “Currently, Native Americans arrested on the reservation, which includes the entire county, have to be taken to Okmulgee County Jail.”
On Monday, the Okfuskee County Board of County Commissioners signed off on an incarceration agreement, and Rasmussen said he would forward it to MCN officials for final approval. According to Rasmussen, the county jail would essentially become a penitentiary for MCN, should the agreement be approved.
“If someone is sentenced to jail time in tribal court, we would hold their inmates, too,” Rasmussen said. It’s not just new arrests or awaiting trial, we’d become their penitentiary, so to speak.”
In a statement released on July 9, MCN Chief David Hill said the nation remains committed to public safety throughout its borders. “We will continue to work with federal and state law enforcement agencies to ensure that public safety will be maintained throughout the territorial boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation,” Hill said.
Hill recently announced the establishment of the “Mvskoke Reservation Protection Commission,” which will be made up of tribal citizens and conduct in-depth analysis of areas including law enforcement and public safety, government-to-government relationships and policy, judicial affairs, violence against native women and murdered and missing indigenous women.