12.5%: The Reality of Police Encounters with Native Americans in Montana

According to his brother, Terrance LaFromboise, Brendon Galbreath “was always smiling.” A member of the Blackfeet Nation, Brendon grew up in Browning, Montana. He left Browning to attend UCLA, where he studied pre-med, and returned to Montana at the start of the pandemic after the death of his grandmother. He lived in Missoula with the intention to transfer colleges to remain close to his family. Interviews of his friends and family reveal that Brendon was a kind and gentle individual who wanted to spend his life helping others. 

On August 12, 2021, Brendon was involved in a Missoula police officer shooting. Per a Missoula Police Department statement, Brendon was stopped by an officer for a suspected DUI and fled the scene. The officer pursued Brendon to Stephens Ave., north of Beckwith St. According to the initial police report, Brendon allegedly fired a handgun. The officer then allegedly returned fire. Brendon was struck during the shootings and taken to St. Patrick Hospital where he died. Later, administrator for the Division of Criminal Investigation, Bryan Lockerby, claimed there was a “strong[ ] indicat[ion]” that Brendon died by suicide. 

Brendon’s family spoke with the Missoula Police Department extensively but has been left with conflicting information over his death. The family has been told that Brendon likely died by suicide and that Brendon and Missoula police fired simultaneously with no way to know which bullets caused his death. 

Brendon’s formal inquest will take place next week Friday the 29th at 9:00 a.m., at the Missoula County Courthouse. The family has asked people to demonstrate their support at noon outside the Courthouse. Please visit the family’s GoFundMe page for more information.

Unfortunately, officer-involved deaths are not unique for Indigenous peoples in Montana. In 2012, Edward Ronald Dale Stump, a member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe, was killed inside his home after reportedly firing at a Yellowstone County deputy—this incident was found justified. Again in 2020, the killing of Coleman Stump, another member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe, was deemed a justifiable homicide committed by officers. Coleman Stump was killed during a confrontation with police in an apartment parking lot. His sisters report dissatisfaction with how his inquest was handled—no forensics proved Coleman Stump had a gun when killed by police, few witnesses were called, and testimony centered on the “violent” nature of the call despite the initial encounter reporting as low-priority. The sisters reported there were “no Natives” on the coroner’s jury.

Indigenous peoples in Montana experience disproportionate police violence. Native Americans represent only 6.7% of Montana residents. But between 2013-2019, Native Americans made up 12.5% of police killings in Montana. This number, though already incredibly high compared to the amount of Native Americans within Montana, is potentially underreported—15% of police killings in this timeframe were “unknown.” Because national databases can exclude the tracking of fatal encounters between Native Americans and police due to a failure to include Native Americans as racial or ethnic categories, Indigenous peoples often go “misidentified, undercounted, or labeled ‘unknown’ or ‘other.’” In a shocking display of discrimination, Lieutenant Brandon Wooley of the Billings Police Department responded to the truth of discriminatory policing against Native Americans by stating, “Native American culture doesn’t need less policing. They truly need more policing.” 

The disproportionate police violence against Native Americans in Montana has far reaching consequences beyond just the lives it ends. Cheryl Horn, a member of the Assiniboine Tribe and a resident of Fort Belknap, reports that she would not call law enforcement for help and does everything in her power to avoid contact with them. In 2017, her 24-year-old nephew Preston was killed after Billings police officers shot him 74 times. This distrust leads to a distrust of the justice system more broadly. As Cheryl explains, she had no faith that the all-white jury would do anything different than what they did–find the killing of her nephew justified. 

The reality of policing in Montana is that it discriminates against and targets Indigenous peoples. Despite the thoughts of Billings Lieutenant Wooley, more policing is not the answer to the disparate violence committed against Indigenous communities here. Changing the systemic racism within Montana policing is not something that can be fixed without involving Indigenous voices and perspectives. Law enforcement and the judicial system must start listening to the people they are supposed to serve and protect. 

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