According to the police investigation, officers agreed to take Bearheels to the bus station. They handcuffed him and put him in the back of a police cruiser, but he slipped out of the car. That led to a scuffle. Police video shows officers shock Bearheels repeatedly with a Taser, drag him by his belt and ponytail, and punch him in the head.
He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. Two former officers are now facing assault charges. Both have pleaded not guilty.
The police department’s investigation found the officers’ use of the Taser an “egregious violation” of policy.
“Zachary Bearheels committed no crime,” Douglas County Attorney Donald Kleine said at a press conference. “Zachary Bearheels was simply a human being suffering from a severe mental illness that was quite obvious to anyone who came in contact with him. Our laws should protect those who are most vulnerable, particularly those who suffer from mental illness.”
Black Elk sees the deaths of his brother and Bearheels as part of a larger problem facing Native Americans.
“It has to do with a mental health crisis and with police killing Native Americans,” he said.
Some legal experts with experience working with Native American communities agree that mental health has played a role in the high rate of deaths from police encounters. They say that mental health services for Native Americans are often woefully inadequate.
A 2015 report
by the Treatment Advocacy Center
, a Virginia-based nonprofit, found that individuals with serious untreated mental illness were 16 times more likely to be killed during an interaction with a police officer and that at least a quarter of fatal encounters involved individuals with serious mental illness.
In February, the US Government Accountability Office placed the federal government’s Indian Health Service
on its high-risk list
. The list highlights agencies and programs vulnerable to fraud or mismanagement or “most in need of transformation.”
The report found the agency was ineffective, lacked adequate oversight and put Native Americans’ health and safety at risk.
“(Native Americans) do not have anything even approaching reasonable mental health services,” Sheehan of the Lakota People’s Law Project said of on-reservation health care. “It’s staggering.”
Addressing the GAO’s report, Chris Buchanan, acting director of the Indian Health Service, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in May, “We share the urgency of addressing longstanding systemic problems… We are using the GAO findings and recommendations to inform our strategic and tactical planning efforts.”
Some experts also said they believe that pervasive stereotypes about Native Americans may help contribute to highly charged police encounters.
Native Americans are often stereotyped as being violent or addicted to alcohol and other drugs, said Fletcher of Michigan State University. He suspects those perceptions, conscious or not, can sometimes tinge police-civilian interactions.
“If your perception going into a situation is that it’s an Indian person and they’re completely out of control, I think that changes things on the ground,” he said.
Kanosh recalls growing up and seeing “older people get in these scary interactions with police because of alcohol.”
“And that would set the bar for future years for cops to always assume that when they were dealing with Native Americans it’s going to be because they’re drunk and going to get in fights,” she said.
A consultant for law enforcement agreed that cultural barriers are a challenge for police in dealing with Native Americans.
“But the flip side of that from an enforcement perspective is police have a job to do, and if it’s a polarizing situation leading to a deadly force situation, you don’t really have time to consider the cultural aspects of it. You have to take action, whatever that might be,” said Rex Scism, president and CEO of Midwest Police Consultants
Scism said he believes those split-second decisions usually fall within the boundaries of the law.
“I’m not going to say the police always get it right; they’re human just like everybody else,” he said.
Police departments across the country are starting to train officers on how to respond to individuals with mental illness. Many are also incorporating training in cultural awareness and deescalation techniques. Yet changing academy curricula or adopting official training programs is not ubiquitous
Mental illness may have played a role in a police shooting in Winslow, Arizona, a town of about 10,000 that borders the Navajo Nation
reservation. The Winslow Police Department faced scrutiny for its role in the 2016 fatal shooting of Loreal Tsingine, a young Navajo woman.
Tsingine was in sweatpants on Easter Sunday last year when officers stopped her in a parking lot on suspicion of shoplifting from a convenience store. Silent body camera footage captures a brief struggle in which Tsingine appears to fall, pulls out a pair of scissors, and then moves away.
She then turns back toward one of the officers, with the scissors in her hand pointed down. The officer shoots her four times: twice in the front and twice in the back as she crumples to the ground, according to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.
Family members told
The Guardian that Tsingine was 5 feet tall and weighed less than 100 pounds. The officer responsible for her death resigned after a meeting with his lieutenant about the internal investigation.
The Department of Justice was called in to examine the police investigation of the case. Prosecutors concluded they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer willfully used excessive force, said Devin O’Malley of the DOJ’s Office of Public Affairs.
Start of Native Lives Matter
A few of these violent encounters have provoked wrongful death lawsuits or, in Bearheels’ case, assault charges
. Yet most don’t. Kanosh said she and her family tried for years to bring her brother’s case to court, but in the end, they were unable to raise the money for an attorney.
Her family is not alone.
“I know plenty of (Native American) families who are even struggling to come up with money for a headstone for their family member,” Kanosh said. “They find themselves with not enough money and not enough support, and they give up hope.”
But their stories have gained attention on social media. Black Elk and Kanosh both help lead one of the emerging voices for Native American rights, Native Lives Matter. The group began in 2014 and is loosely modeled after Black Lives Matter.
Since its founding, Natives Lives Matter has held rallies and fund-raisers to raise awareness about police violence against Native Americans. Its Facebook page
now has more than 160,000 members, and hashtags such as #NativeLivesMatter and #NativeAmericanLivesMatter are slowly gaining currency. A recent event to raise funds for people affected by the Dakota Access Pipeline protests
attracted more than 500 people, said Troy Amlee, a core member of the group.
Kanosh has a straightforward goal. “I never want my brother’s story to die,” she said. “I don’t want other people’s family members — brothers, sisters, aunts, fathers, uncles — I don’t want their stories to die either.”