OKMULGEE, Oklahoma – Being responsible for the well-being and safety of Native Americans and non-natives across an 11-county area is no easy feat. Two years after the SCOTUS confirmation of the reservation, law enforcement has shifted in many ways, affecting everyone living within these boundaries. Meeting the need is possible with the help of local agencies, including the state, county, and city.
On an episode of Mvskoke Radio, the Lighthorse Police updated the structure of the two-year post-McGirt justice system around the Mvskoke Reservation. The hour-long episode featured the Lighthorse Police Chief Richard Phillips.
Phillips has worked in law enforcement for about 25 years in many capacities. Now in the second year of his current position as Chief of Police for the Lighthorse. He oversees the department’s operations while ensuring his force is equipped to deliver adequate public safety.
According to Philips, there are 63 commissioned officers out in the field with the LPD, along with the assistance of the cross-deputization agreements and the officers working with those agencies.
“We could always use more people, but we make do with what we have,” Phillips said.
The workload has increased over the last two years since proper jurisdiction is being observed. The LPD has increased the number of employees, equipment, and resources.
Deputy Chief Dennis Northcross and Captain Chad Morris are in charge of hiring for the department and say they will consider Mvskoke applicants first.
“Citizens first, members of other tribes secondary,” Northcross said.
Before the McGirt decision, the department only kept 15-20 officers on staff. Their primary job was community policing which included doing business checks and policing the complex or other MCN sites.
A Special Operations division has been recently implemented by Captain Jerry Smith leads. This includes a SWAT, dive team, search and rescue, swift water, and drones.
According to Smith, the SWAT team is made of 20 members, with hopes to add more with another testing day set in Jan. The members are trained vigorously multiple times yearly, with the most recent training in November 2022.
Smith claims the department is in the process of grant applications for weaponry and armory, including an armored vehicle. Fortunately, other tribal nations like the Cherokee and Chickasaw nations and state agencies have reached out to offer a helping hand if needed.
“Usually, it’s the most violent crimes that your Tact (SWAT) team would be called out for,” Smith said. “Barricade situations or something that patrol may not have the resources or equipment to handle.”
Today’s technology gives Smith and his team the upper hand in a lot of situations, almost “taking the manpower out of it” however, the department stays ready in cases where the technology may fail or can’t do what is needed.
Applying drones to the task force helped create a safety net in law enforcement universally. Agencies may send a drone into a danger zone to do the initial sweep of an area, house, or building.
“I’d rather replace a drone than an officer,” Smith said.
A robot will be added to the department with grant funding that will be used to diffuse bomb situations, Smith said. Four officers will be sent to Arizona for intensive training for usage.
Despite the political rift, LPD and state agencies have a good relationship with the law enforcement sector of public service. Captain Morris is responsible for managing those cross-commissions, claiming there are little to no issues with those agencies.
“We work well with our emergency management and the state emergency management,” Smith said. “We help each other out all the time on searches for missing kids, swifts water events, or dive events.”
One of the most recent examples was during a search for a toddler that went missing on the Muscogee Reservation that drew in multiple agencies on each level of tribal, state, and federal last fall.
“I can’t express how much state and other tribal agencies helped us,” Smith said.
All differences and opinions were put aside for a bigger picture that day.
“Even though it wasn’t the outcome we wanted…” Smith said. “It brought a lot of the agencies closer together.”
Another benefit to the collaborative emergency was allowing each side to see the resources of another and get a close look at what each agency could offer one another in situations as such.
As tragedy struck the reservation again in the home capital of the reservation when four men went missing, with one having tribal member status, the LPD offered assistance to the Okmulgee Co. Sheriff and PD in search and rescue.
“We do respect jurisdictional boundaries,” Phillips said. “We were asked at the tail end, and we offered whatever tools we had to achieve a common goal.”
According to Smith, there were other agencies involved with more efficient equipment.
Some agencies are less willing than others, but Philips said the LPD respects agencies and offers help regardless.
“The ones who are cross commissioned with us work well with us,” Philips said. “We are open to discussion with those who aren’t. Our door is always open.”
“To serve the citizen is our ultimate goal.”
Okmulgee law enforcement agencies have yet to engage in the agreements brought forth by the MCN, causing a few limitations. Still, Phillips said each agency works past those obstacles at a higher level if necessary.
Regardless of cross-commissions, officers can still step in and handle situations to a certain point of assertion and can detain a citizen until the appropriate agency is contacted and present.
“Our first and foremost concern is public safety,” Phillips said. “Non-native or native.”
Phillips has now answered that any police can pull over, stop, question, or detain any citizen based on probable cause for public safety. That is an officer’s job and is supported by law and policy.
According to Captain Morris, it is their right to take action during a public safety incident.
“If they’re within the reservation, we have a right to take action and make a traffic stop,” Morris said.
If the commission is in place, LPD will act as the agent for the agency and transport to jail and file charges with the district’s attorney on whoever need be.
Northcross breaks it down, “If I were in the Tulsa City limits, and I conducted a traffic stop, and it was determined the person was non-native, I would act as an agent for the Tulsa Police Department. I would issue a summons or contact the department if needed. I would transport them to jail if necessary. I would issue charges and present the court with those charges.”
Without the agreement, the LPD will present the agency with the probable cause action that initiated the stop and hand over the case to them.
“We are all officers first and foremost, and it’s a matter of public safety,” Phillips said. “We all have families on the same road.”
The Nation does not currently have a jail for those jailed in Lighthorse custody, but there are five contracts for Okfuskee County, Pawnee County, Creek County, Muskogee County, and David L. Moss in Tulsa.
Each county has a different contract depending on what they can manage. Smith claims that in the Tulsa area, MCN holds 120-130 inmates on average, but they are not limited to that number. Pawnee Co. designates 60 beds funded by the MCN.
North Division Commander Michael Fish oversees Tulsa Co, Creek Co. Rogers Co., Mays Co., Wagoner Co., and Muskogee Co. Commander Leeland Bear oversees the other counties.
The primary job of the two includes working with major agencies, including the FBI and DEA.
Fish said he works with law enforcement agencies for networking purposes and to inform all citizens within the jurisdiction.
According to Fish, for the whole operation to work, it takes an extensive collaborative effort.
“There’s not a book written on supervising the North Division. I’m the first,” Fish said. “We’re going to have some trial and error.”
For emergencies, call Dispatch at 918-732-7800.