OMAK — In all four districts of the Colville Reservation — Inchelium, Keller, Nespelem and Omak — you’ll find tribal members who feel they’ve been unjustly treated by the Washington State Patrol.
For minorities, Native Americans stood out as the most-often searched and most-often discovered to possess drugs or contraband as a result of the search, according to an InvestigateWest study of more than 8 million WSP traffic stops from 2009 to 2015.
Native Americans, per capita, were searched at a rate that more than doubled the next leading minority. It’s a glaring disparity that WSP is aware of, according to Chris Loftis, Washington State Patrol’s communications director.
“We’re just as troubled as anyone aware of this will be,” he said. “To be honest with you, what we have been doing has not moved the needle.”
Loftis said the InvestigateWest study does not have links to explicit bias.
“But if race, period, is playing a role, then we’ve got to get to the bottom of it,” he said.
These numbers came as no surprise to many Colville tribal members, including Sylvia Peasley, of Keller, who believed they could be higher.
Peasley, 62, has endured numerous stops by WSP in Omak and as the wife of a former student who attended Eastern Washington University in Cheney. Once, she believed her husband was profiled for simply attaching an eagle feather to his rearview mirror.
The couple was stopped in Wilbur and then in Davenport by WSP on the same day for the same reason, they believed.
“(My husband) untied the eagle feather and told me to never hang one again,” she said. “I felt so compromised and hurt because I put a lot of prayer into that feather to protect him as he traveled back and forth daily.”
Just seeing a State Patrol officer can have an unpleasant effect on a tribal member, said Richie Gorr, 44 of Coulee Dam.
“Instantly, when I see a state patrolman, the first thing I do is I look at my speedometer: make sure I’m not speeding, I’m legitimate,” Gorr, a fire marshal for the Colville Tribes, said. “Then, I look in my mirror to see if they’re following me.
“What might I be doing wrong? I’m driving while brown — simply the wrong color, man.”
Gorr attributed the striking numbers of the study to the poverty rates his fellow tribal members experience.
“I know a lot of the troopers use ‘equipment failure,’” he said. “They just pick and choose to manipulate the laws to pull minority groups over.”
Loftis defended patrol officers in terms of speeding stops.
“That’s actually a blind process,” he said. “If a car’s pulling someone for going over the speed limit, they can’t see who’s driving the car. It’s not until they engage with who they’re stopping.”
In the age of social media, many tribal members rely on others to alert them of a WSP presence in the area, so they can avoid getting potentially profiled, according to Peasley.
“It seems to be ‘the norm’ for us as tribal members to always instantly be alert and cautious when a friend reports on social media that staters are posted up somewhere,” she said.
Dan Nanamkin, a 52-year-old Colville member from Nespelem, said he expects to see State Patrol officers as soon as he enters east Omak. The former Colville tribal police officer said authorities, including WSP, have created target areas near or adjacent to the Colville Reservation boundary, where tribal sovereignty — to an extent — ends.
“We tribal members know what the gauntlets are around here,” Nanamkin said. “It’s really sad and unfortunate, you know? … It’s sad we’ve always got to look out for being indigenous, looking indigenous, turning our indigenous music down. We should feel safe.”
Colville member Shelly Boyd, 57 of Inchelium, said her late husband Jim, the former chairman of the Colville Business Council, was frequently stopped because he looked like a stereotypical Native American.
“It’s a certain kind of Native American man that looks like Jim,” she said. “He was actually the most law-abiding person in the world — and partly because he got randomly stopped all the time.”
Tribal members Sonny Sellars, 45 of Omak, worries about his son, a senior at Lake Roosevelt High School in Coulee Dam.
“He is a young driver with his own car in his name,” Sellars said. “If they pulled him over, he wouldn’t have the experience to stand up for his rights like other adults. I have even told him that the WSP use a heavy hand with impunity when they’ve known of their own behavior and did nothing meaningful to combat it.”
Peasley said it’s sad that future generations of tribal members are raised with the idea that State Patrol officers are racist.
“My grandson already has that misconception,” she said.
Boyd believes law enforcement like the WSP should be seen as tribal members’ allies.
“Tribal members should look at them as people that are going to protect us,” Boyd said. “But as an indigenous population, we’re afraid of them.”
In November of 2019, the Washington State Patrol Government and Media Relations team did add its first full-time Tribal Liaison. That position, which established two tribal liaison positions, came after the 2nd Substitute House Bill 1713 passed earlier last year. With their creation, the WSP hopes to “work to build relationships that increase trust between government organizations and Native communities,” according to a news release.
Gorr hope the changes mean tribal members will eventually be treated equally. He cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.
“One day, my children will be judged by the contents of their character, not the color of their skin,” he said, laughing.
Sellars hopes to see change soon.
“With the power (WSP) wields, they are not using it responsibly,” Sellars said. “Seeing fellow Natives pulled over because the color of their skin is not just racist and demeaning, but it is very infuriating to be powerless to stop it.”
In 2000, WSP began a comprehensive study with Washington State University to research its traffic stop statistics, according to Loftis. The study lost funding in 2007, he said, but early numbers were coming forth as InvestigateWest’s data. He believes there may be funding ahead that could reanimate their study, which took into account several factors, including: Time of day; passengers in the vehicle; the situation surrounding the stop; the experience of the trooper; the trooper’s age, race and ethnicity.
“The WSU studies were far more nuanced,” he said.
Increasing pressure at the state level has helped WSP put the focus is back on research, development and recruiting.
“Now we’re in the modern times,” Loftis said. “We recognize that the needle has not moved in 20 years, even though we have dramatically improved our training and bias.”
One change the WSP hopes to make is increasing the diversity of its troopers, Loftis said.
“We do not mirror the state we serve; we’re very aware of that,” he said. “That’s not just the WSP, but law enforcement in general in the United States is predominantly white males. So we’re trying to recruit females and minorities who can help us navigate cultures that are different than our officers have experienced.
“I think people can rest assured we’re doing all we can to find out what the problem is and fix it.”