RIVERTON — The aftermath of a tense encounter with Fremont County’s top prosecutor was what State Rep. Andi Clifford, D-Ethete, called evidence of race-based thinking within the Wyoming Legislature.
In a meeting last week of the Legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations, Clifford rebuked Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun for his handling of a September 2019 officer-involved shooting.
The confrontation provoked calls for decorum from State Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander.
“I plead for decorum in this committee,” said Case. “It’s not an inquisition. We’re not picking and settling scores between elected officials… I protest that there’s an issue that’s preventing us from talking seriously about a serious piece of legislation that’s been in front of this committee, and had committee work for over a decade.”
Case noted that because Clifford had veered from the scheduled topic of addressing tribal law enforcement jurisdiction, LeBrun did not have to respond to her inquiries during the meeting.
“We are better than this,” he continued. “We are the Wyoming Legislature, and we need to focus on the topic.”
State Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, who co-chairs the committee, cautioned Clifford to stay within the agenda and develop legislation.
In a later interview, Clifford said both Case’s call for decorum and Larsen’s moderation were, in part, racially motivated.
“I am well aware of the fact that there are complex issues that we, as a committee face, and a lot of time there are no simple solutions,” she said. “If nothing else, the tribal relations meeting this week brings attention to the fact that I, as an indigenous female state representative, face systemic racism.”
Clifford said cold treatment throughout later portions of the meeting evidenced her claim.
“I felt I was suppressed… because Senator Case got in there, and verbally reprimanded me,” she said. “I was passionate, but I’m not going to apologize.”
The delegate also said that, despite her fellow legislators’ claims that she’d gotten “out in the weeds” in straying from the agenda, her concerns linked back to the schedule, but she was preempted from making the connection.
“There is no need for restrictive, unnecessary suppression of our voices, the indigenous voices, and those actions only make it harder for people of Wind River to participate in meaningful dialogue during the tribal relations committee meetings,” she said.
The agenda that day tasked the committee with developing 2013 House Bill 27, granting law enforcement jurisdiction by Bureau of Indian Affairs police to white traffic law offenders on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Currently, tribal police may stop offenders on the reservation but must call state or county law enforcement to continue the case if the offender is not enrolled in an American Indian tribe.
LeBrun was invited to the meeting to speak on behalf of the county’s justice structures regarding the bill.
He opposed HB 27 due to the BIA’s policy of non-transparency to the public and due to the high rates of turnover within the force which make prosecutorial follow-up difficult.
An elected official himself, he also noted a lack of local control-by-election within the federal police force.
Clifford has since said, though she wants to advance the bill, her chief discomfort with it is it preserves the County Attorney’s prosecutorial discretion over non-native offenders on the reservation.
LeBrun’s office currently prosecutes non-enrolled offenders of state laws on the reservation, once they are cited or arrested by state or county police. The county attorney would still prosecute non-enrolled offenders under the new legislation.
The alternative is for those offenders to be prosecuted in either tribal or federal court - but that route is not contemplated in the bill, nor has been proposed openly by the committee.
That method is not, according to Larsen, jurisdictionally feasible, and would not be a pragmatic approach to the bill.
“Here’s the complex jurisdictional issue I want to make a point on,” Clifford said at the meeting. “It’s Patrick LeBrun, and it’s our tribal member who got shot at Walmart: Anderson ‘Andy’ Antelope. That’s my issue, so if we want to talk about local control and transparency, we never got justice. The people never got justice.”
In her later interview, Clifford said when the comment was made about LeBrun’s jurisdiction remaining intact, she hoped to link the Antelope shooting to the topic, as a point to dispute the County Attorney’s continued jurisdiction over white offenders.
“I didn’t get to finish that point,” due to Larsen’s monitoring and Case’s call for decorum, she said. “That’s my issue with this bill: is that our federal BIA officers can get the training and become Wyoming peace officers to enforce state traffic laws… and they could do all this work… and he could just throw the case out and not prosecute it?”
“And because of his handling, his squashing of the public inquest of the officer-involved shooting of our tribal member Andy Antelope, that’s my problem: that (the decision to prosecute) ultimately lies with him.”
But LeBrun said his office has no problem prosecuting people in his jurisdiction who are found in violation of the law.
“We prosecute every one of them that’s provable - and it’s generally DUIs - and we’ve always got a few of them going,” he said, referring to non-enrolled offenders on the reservation.
Northern Arapaho tribal member Anderson Antelope, 58, stabbed and attempted to stab a Riverton Police Department officer in front of Walmart on Sept. 21, 2019.
According to multiple eyewitnesses, the officer yelled “drop the weapon” twice at Antelope, then fired his pistol once. Antelope died at the scene.
Owing to his armored vest, the officer was uninjured.
Months later and after reviewing a Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation probe, LeBrun ruled the officer’s actions were justified under Wyoming self-defense statutes.
Because LeBrun is statutorily responsible for determining whether fatalities are justified or not, he opposed the performance of a coroner’s inquest by Fremont County Coroner Mark Stratmoen.
Stratmoen’s policy is to perform coroner’s inquests in officer-involved homicides.
Inquests are reserved by law for including three members of the public in determining the cause and manner of a person’s death - not ruling whether the death was justified.
Nevertheless, Clifford said, an inquest would have given the public a chance to question the officer and the witnesses, as well as to voice an opinion on whether the shooting was justified.
Before the inquest was called off due to resistance by public officials, Stratmoen had asked Clifford to serve as a juror on the three-person panel.
“I would have, along with the other two jurors, been able to ask questions of subpoenaed witnesses and then have participated in ruling on the manner and cause of death and state whether we felt the shooting was justified or not,” she wrote in a Wednesday statement.
Forensic pathologist Dr. James Wilkerson concluded Antelope’s autopsy last October, finding the cause and manner of death were homicide by gunshot wound to the head.
“I strongly feel an independent investigation in the form of a public inquest in the officer-involved shooting would provide answers,” wrote Clifford, “and some form of justice to Andy and his family and friends.”
Clifford, like the late Antelope, is an enrolled Northern ArapahoTribal member.
When asked to comment on Clifford’s allegations of systemic racism, Larsen told The Ranger and Lander Journal the tribal relations committee often grapples with “delicate situations,” that bring emotion to the forefront.
“I am confident that in the next few days you will see emotions settle and all parties involved in that discussion… will once again engage in a constructive discussion to help these issues move forward to a positive and reasonable conclusion.”
Larsen did not agree legislative delegates reacted to Clifford based on her race or racial issues. He said calls for decorum and adherence to the schedule are integral to the committee altogether.
“Later in the meeting, Representative Sweeney from Casper made an extended comment on an issue, but without a question, and I again reminded the committee that we needed to avoid or resist taking liberty and expressing our personal views – and try to focus on asking questions that would help us better understand” legislative issues.
State Rep. Patrick Sweeney, R-Casper, is a 66-year-old white male.