CN Marshal Service rises to challenge of McGirt

Grant D. Crawford | Daily Press

Cherokee Nation Marshal Service Sgt. John Wofford patrolled the streets in Tahlequah Friday.

The Cherokee Nation Marshal Service is taking more calls and dealing with more cases in the wake of the Supreme Court’s McGirt decision, but the job for officers remains the same.

The high court determined last year that Muscogee Nation reservation was never disestablished, and a subsequent ruling from a federal court found the same to be true for the Cherokee Nation. It’s created more responsibility for the tribe, since the state no longer has criminal or civil jurisdiction involving Natives. It's up to the federal government or the Cherokee Nation to prosecute crimes.

CNMS Director Shannon Buhl said that while the agency is busier, business is still essentially the same; just on a larger scale.

“At the end of the day, it is our primary responsibility to protect our citizens,” he said. “That’s what’s bringing me stress now. I’ve been so inundated with protecting our tribal citizens, that now that has been expanded greatly.”

The McGirt decision only established that the reservation remains intact. It didn’t speak to how law enforcement is supposed to work on Native reservations. So the CNMS and other agencies have to look into decisions like Ross v. Neff to determine how policing is handled in Indian Country. The only change it’s made to local, county, state, and tribal law agencies is where cases are held, or tried.

“It’s still the same bad guy,” said Buhl. “The jails have the same people still in them. The only difference is that the tribe pays for the Native Americans in the jail. The jails aren’t being overcrowded because of this. Quite frankly, the jails are getting more benefit now, because before McGirt, they had these people in the jails, but the tribe wasn’t paying $42 [per inmate] a day to the jail.”

The Marshal Service has long held cross-deputization agreements with area law enforcement agencies. In 2000, there were only two, though. The agency worked its way up from that number since then. In the past 10 years, it went from around 50 agreements to 60. With the McGirt decision, it’s reached a little over 70 pacts now.

“So if Tahlequah cross-deputized with us, it allows that Tahlequah officer to come onto Indian Country and work as a tribal marshal,” said Buhl. “So when they are in Indian Country, working on an Indian case, they’re deputized marshals. If my marshals are in the city working a state case, they’re Tahlequah police. So with the police, there’s been no change.”

Prior to the McGirt decision, the agency had 29 marshals. It has since added another eight, who were deputized and are waiting for their academy date. While Buhl said it's important for the Marshal Service to beef up its manpower, it’s even more critical that he hires the right people.

“I had over 300 candidates in this hiring for 12 positions,” he said. “I only hired eight. That’s 300 applicants who came through our hands, and I couldn’t find 12. As critical as I need officers, I will only pick officers I absolutely know are going to protect my citizens’ rights, do the job they need to do, and do it the right way. Our process is one of most brutal hiring processes in the U.S. for a police officer.”

The agency is still looking for another four marshals, and could likely use the help. That would allow Buhl to divvy up duties among marshals, as some wear many hats.

Sgt. John Wofford does a little bit of everything. He works on sex offender registrations, serves as a bailiff for the courts, transports suspects, and still takes calls and patrols when needed. He said the courts are lot busier nowadays.

“Tuesday, the docket was just enormous,” he said. “We actually have court four days a week now, and we used to have one day. One day during the week is protective order hearings, one day of the week is juvenile delinquencies, one day is nothing but criminal [cases], and one day is for guardianships.”

The CN Attorney General’s Office has received a large influx of cases the federal courts decided not to handle. This means more of those charged with crimes have to come to Tahlequah to stand trial. Since the Marshal Service contracts with jails throughout its 14-county jurisdiction and does not currently have a jail of its own, suspects have to be transported frequently into town.

“From week to week, we don’t know how many transports we’re going to have,” Wofford said. “If they’re Native American, more than likely it’s going through tribal court. So we’ll go up and get them, take them to court, and then bring them back.”

Faron Pritchett has served with the Marshal Service for around 20 years. He’s been on patrol, headed the narcotics unit in Adair County, and now works with the Conservation Department. He said his new duties, in conjunction with the McGirt decision, haven’t affected his job too much.

“The good thing is, we were about halfway prepared for it and were able to keep everybody cross-deputized,” he said. “Really, everything’s been a pretty even flow. We did open another section of law enforcement where we do land and animal conservation, so game warden is basically what I am now. The big focus is the new lands down in Sequoyah County – the new 4,000-acre hunting persevere they opened down there.”

The Marshal Service’s SWAT team has also been getting called out more. Just this week, it responded to a shooting in Peggs during which a man had a standoff with police. After the suspect surrendered, the agency’s tactical team made the arrest.

Buhl believes in not only protecting the law-abiding citizens, but doing right by those they arrest or come into contact with.

“We protect the tribe, we protect the community,” he said. “Part of that protection is how we treat those suspects, because they’re coming back. I would much rather a suspect come back from prison or jail with a respect for us.”

Buhl said it’s more important to have five well-rounded, smart, and committed officers than to have 20 who are partly capable of doing the job. So although the marshals are receiving more calls and have a busier schedule, Buhl is confident his officers have the ability to serve the tribe’s citizens, and its neighbors.

“You’ll hear a lot in the media about the world coming to an end,” Buhl. “It really isn’t.”

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