Morton County, ND – A new investigation by DeSmog and Muckrock reveals the behind-the-scenes role played by the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) in crafting narratives for law enforcement tasked with protecting the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) from resistance by indigenous peoples and their allies.
Emails obtained through public records requests show the Sheriffs’ Association contracted PR firms Off The Record Strategies and Delve to create a media strategy for law enforcement in North Dakota, as well as researching ways to discredit and disrupt the movement which sought to stop the pipeline. At times, this involved drafting pro-DAPL talking points which were then sent directly to North Dakota law enforcement officials, who often repeated them word for word.
Leaked documents from pipeline security contractor TigerSwan had previously shown how the Sheriffs’ Association, a private organization operating with no public accountability or oversight, directly aided private military contractors in pushing pro-DAPL messaging as well as providing on-the-ground support. The National Sheriffs’ Association also played a key role in bringing out-of-state law enforcement to North Dakota under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC). Their website lists TigerSwan as one of their corporate sponsors.
A Webinar hosted by the Sheriffs’ Association on May 7 of this year, features Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney sharing his history of the events surrounding the resistance to DAPL. His presentation, delivered to an audience of law enforcement from across the country, presents a tactical and strategic analysis of police and military efforts to end direct actions against DAPL and close the water protectors’ camps. Laney worked closely with the Morton County Sheriff and personally coordinated most law enforcement actions throughout months of direct actions, mass arrests, and contested pipeline construction. He also sits on the board of the National Sheriffs’ Association.
The Webinar, entitled “Protest on the Prairie: Law Enforcement Response and Lessons Learned” took place on May 7, 2017, and is publicly available in the National Sheriffs’ Association Adobe Connect portal. We have reproduced a copy of it in full, which you can watch below:
— Unicorn Riot (@UR_Ninja) July 24, 2017
North Dakota law enforcement, together with the National Sheriffs’ Association, is now presenting the tactics used by police at Standing Rock as a model to be applied nationwide. Various heavy-handed approaches to pipeline opponents are recommended, with an emphasis on combating protesters in the media – an effort at times explicitly called a “media war” or “information war.”
Versions of this talk continue to be presented as training to law enforcement audiences, with presenters sometimes including Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier and pipeline security mercenaries from TigerSwan.
— Nat Sheriffs’ Assoc. (@NationalSheriff) June 28, 2017
In April of this year, officials from the Sheriffs’ Association met with Nebraska’s Attorney General to discuss potential protests against the Keystone XL pipeline. Kirchmeier has also advised officials from South Dakota and Nebraska.
In his presentation, Laney stressed the importance of departments training in advance in Mobile Field Force (riot police) tactics, as well as creating “cut teams” with the know-how to disable lockbox devices used by water protectors to attach themselves to equipment.
The cut teams used in North Dakota were put together by Mandan Police Chief Jason Ziegler, who Laney said had experience in the matter from his previous work at the Osceola County Sheriff in Florida.
Other “lessons learned,” presented as advice to law enforcement nationwide for dealing with pipeline protests, include officers not wearing names or badge numbers and being allowed to hide their faces.
Another recommended tactic is “disruption of protester travel” – closing public roads to vehicles suspected of involvement in a demonstration or direct action.
Laney repeatedly stressed his emphasis on identifying “agitators” and repeatedly blamed a “hostile militant element” of “six hundred people or so” for confrontations that occurred in North Dakota. Two such elements explicitly named by Laney were “the eco-terrorist groups out of the pacific northwest” and “the Oglala Red Warrior group.”
The other presenter in the Webinar was Mark Pfiefle of Off The Record Strategies. Pfiefle formerly worked for the George W. Bush administration to coordinate public relations responses to criticism of the Iraq war. Pfiefle celebrated the Morton County Sheriff’s series of “Know The Truth” YouTube videos as a media victory, saying the $40,000 budget for the PR videos (described by one reporter as ‘gonzo propaganda’) was a good investment as it proved its “worth to the brand of the state.”
Towards the end of his presentation, Pfiefle reiterated that both himself and the National Sheriffs’ Association will continue to be available to any law enforcement agency seeking to neutralize opposition to a pipeline in their area.
“Consider us a resource of the National Sheriff’s Association. This is not the end of our activities to help and support law enforcement in areas where the pipelines could be under protest attack in the next days, months and years.” – Mark Pfiefle, Off The Record Strategies
Sheriff Laney’s presentation, which is disseminated as educational content to sworn law enforcement officers, repeated several unfounded allegations as well as numerous claims proven to be false.
Sheriff Laney stated “we knew there were weapons in the camp” to support his characterization of water protectors as armed and dangerous, when in fact, after the main pipeline resistance camp was evicted on February 22, Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said no weapons were found.
He also repeated Morton County’s claim that a media drone was flown directly at a helicopter in an attempt to crash it. Witness testimony to support this claim has repeatedly fallen short in court and felony cases against two different drone pilots have recently been dismissed. He also repeated unproven allegations that a helicopter was attacked with a “bow and arrow.”
When describing the October 27, 2016 incident involving DAPL security contractor Kyle Thompson, Laney said Thompson was ‘abducted’ by water protectors and that Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) “was able to get in there and rescue him.” What Laney chose not to mention was that BIA officers had actually arrived to arrest Thompson after he pointed an assault rifle at several unarmed civilians.
While denying the use of water cannons on Backwater Bridge on November 20 (“There’s not a single water cannon in the state of North Dakota”) Laney admitted that fire hoses were used on the crowd and that their use was “effective.” He also claimed that Sophia Wilansky, who nearly lost her arm in an explosion on the night of November 20, was responsible for her own injuries by allegedly rigging an IED, saying “you can see the damage she did to her arm” when showing a picture of Wilansky being transported by medics from the scene.
Eyewitnesses say officers atop an armored vehicle on Backwater Bridge threw a grenade at Sophia as she was running away from rubber bullets being shot from the police barricade. Laney then went on to claim that water protectors had been mass-producing ‘propane bombs’ to attack officers’ families in their homes. No charges against Wilansky, or any person, have been filed to substantiate these allegations. Propane camping cylinders, the alleged explosive materials, are known as being very difficult to ignite. Laney also mistakenly referred to Sophia Wilansky as “Sarah.”
A common thread between all of Laney’s remarks was a doubling-down on a pro-pipeline law enforcement narrative as well as an insistence that water protectors were misguided, and were spreading lies about the pipeline and actions by police.
“People were answering the call. They believed these social media stories that we were abusing people, and that the pipeline was this evil thing that was crossing native land and going through areas that were sacramental to the tribes and the water source was going to be destroyed. And none of that was true.” – Paul Laney, Cass County Sheriff & National Sheriffs’ Association board member
During the Sheriffs’ Association yearly conference last month, Paul Laney was awarded the NSA President’s Award for his role in putting down the #NoDAPL movement. A video recently posted to Facebook announcing the award celebrates Sheriff Laney as a hero and refers to water protectors as “obnoxious” and denounces “biased news stories” about police. (The Sheriffs’ Association has historically been very anti-protest and helped coordinate brutal crackdowns on civil rights and anti-war demonstrations in Berkeley, CA in the 1960s and 70s.)
While public outrage against police violence in North Dakota still simmers, and class action lawsuits are still underway, the right-wing bend of law enforcement subculture means that policies and practices in pipeline policing will likely remain unchanged. As the Sheriffs’ Association continues to plan for repressing future anti-pipeline unrest, Laney’s 17-point “DAPL Lessons Learned” appears poised to become an informal law enforcement doctrine to be applied anywhere in America that the oil industry calls on police to put down popular resistance.
Unicorn Riot has repeatedly tried to contact representatives of the National Sheriffs’ Association throughout the course of our reporting on the #NoDAPL movement; to this date we have not received any response.
To help our volunteer-operated, horizontally-organized, non-profit media collective please consider a tax-deductible donation: Below is Unicorn Riot's coverage of the [#NoDAPL] anti-Dakota Access Pipeline struggle from early summer 2016 to present: March - May 2016
- March 29th, “Tribal Citizens Prepare to Blockade Bakken Oil Pipeline“.
- April 3rd, “Tribal Citizens Build Camp in Path of Oil Pipeline“.
- May 5th, “Sacred Stone Camp Resists Dakota Access Pipeline“.
- May 27th, “Dakota Access Pipeline Blockade Enters 2nd Month“.
- After covering the camp in the spring of 2016, Unicorn Riot returned to Standing Rock Reservation on Wednesday, August 10th, when Standing Rock tribal members and allies blocked the entrance to the Dakota Access Pipeline construction site.
- On Thursday, August 11th, a dozen or so people were arrested blocking the construction site entrances.
- Day 3, Friday, the fight to protect land & water intensified around the construction sites of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
- On the 4th day, the pipeline resistance encampment swelled and prepared for more action.
- Monday, August 15th, land defenders stormed the construction site halting construction, and the next day construction was halted as well.
- August 17th saw State Police begin checkpoints, roadblocks, and psyops as protesters united to defend water.
- August 24th, camps prepared as Federal injunction hearing looms.
- Camps Organize to Stay as Injunction Postponed.
- On August 31st, Non-Violent Direct Action Stopped DAPL Construction for Over 6 Hours.
- September 6, indigenous water protectors swarmed Dakota Access Pipeline site, stopped work
- September 7, Uŋpa Nuŋpa was interviewed about ongoing #noDAPL actions
- North Dakota highway patrol refused to release email correspondence with Energy Transfer Partners
- September 8, ND National Guard took over Dakota Access Pipeline checkpoints
- Friday, September 9, US Govt. overruled federal judge and requested pipeline construction halted at Lake Oahe
- Meanwhile, cultural activities continued at #NoDAPL camps despite more arrests/warrants
- September 13, 20 were arrested during #NoDAPL lockdown, including 2 Unicorn Riot journalists
- September 14, direct actions continued against Dakota Access Pipeline while legal repression intensified
- On September 16 a federal judge dissolved the unconstitutional temporary restraining order Dakota Access, LLC had filed against Stranding Rock tribal members
- September 19, as solidarity protests spread nationwide, the federal appeals court ordered construction temporarily stop on Dakota Access segment as Solidarity Protests Spread Nationwide
- September 21, #NoDAPL noise demo demanded freedom for jailed water protector Olowan Martinez
- September 22, water protectors disrupted the annual meeting of the North Dakota Petroleum Council
- September 25, water protectors planted trees on DAPL construction site
- In Iowa on September 26, a non-violent direct action from the Mississippi Stand camp stopped DAPL construction for the day
- September 26, a caravan of water protectors stopped work at DAPL site
- September 27, militarized police arrested 23 water protectors in DAPL work stoppage
- September 29, a #NoDAPL solidarity action took place at MN Enbridge office
- October 3rd-4th saw the "Toxic Tour," Governor debate disruption, and water protectors attend their court arraignment
- October 4, we learned North Dakota Governor Dalrymple's email inbox was full of support for #NoDAPL
- October 5, Buffer Zone Holds as Caravans Continue to Disrupt DAPL – New Felony Charges
- October 7, 6 Arrested in Iowa #NoDAPL Action, Including Unicorn Riot Journalist
- October 8, Iowa Water Protectors Blockade DAPL Drill Site Twice in 24 Hours
- October 9, Federal Appeals Court Rules to Allow DAPL Construction
- October 10, 27 Arrests After Water Protectors Pray at DAPL Site on Indigenous People's Day
- October 12, Lockdown Stops DAPL Construction in Iowa, 3 Arrested, Including Unicorn Riot Journalist
- October 14, Emails Show North Dakota Budget Bureaucracy Behind #NoDAPL Policing
- October 16, Direct Actions Continue to Stop DAPL Construction in Iowa and North Dakota
- October 17, Four Unicorn Riot Journalists Face Charges For Covering #NoDAPL
- October 17, Water Protectors Blockade Highway in Bismarck, Some Charges Dropped
- October 20, As DAPL Construction Advances, Water Protectors Continue Direct Action
- October 22, Water Protectors’ Prayer Walk Ends up with 127 Arrests, Including Unicorn Riot Journalist
- October 23, Law Enforcement Attack Private Drone as Water Protectors Erect Blockade & New Winter Camp
- October 24, Mississippi Stand Blockades Iowa DAPL Drill Waste Site, Drilling Stops
- October 25, Records Release: Morton County’s Law Enforcement Mutual Aid Assistance Agreement
- Hundreds Flood Minneapolis City Hall to Demand Local Sheriff Withdraw from North Dakota
- October 26, Tensions Rise as Pipeline Construction Nears #NoDAPL Blockade
- October 27, Police and Military Attack Oceti Sakowin Treaty Camp
- November 1, #NoDAPL Solidarity Rally & Sit-In in Minneapolis Prods Sheriff into Removing Deputies
- November 1, DAPL Resistance Continues Despite Advancing Construction
- November 2, Police Attack Water Protectors Defending Sacred Sites
- November 5, DAPL Construction Nears US Army Corps Land While Still Lacking Permits
- November 6, Water Protectors Attempt to Reclaim Sacred Burial Site, Demonstrate in Cemetery
- November 8, Dakota Access Announces Plan to Drill Under Missouri River Within Weeks
- November 11, Dakota Access Pipeline Work Stopped As Water Protectors Storm Site; 30+ Arrested
- November 14, #NoDAPL Water Protectors March on ND State Capitol after Caravan Disrupts Construction
- November 14, Mississippi Stand Goes Inside Pipeline and Shuts Down DAPL Construction
- November 14, Army Corps Delays DAPL Easement
- November 15, "No More Stolen Sisters" Demonstration Blockades DAPL Man Camp; 25+ Arrests
- November 16, Despite Army Corps Statement, DAPL Moves Horizontal Drill to Missouri River Crossing
- November 17, Demonstration in Bismarck-Mandan, Cass County Deputies Beat Man Bloody
- November 20, Police Attack Unarmed Water Protectors w/ Rubber Bullets, Tear Gas, and Water Cannons; 300+ injured
- November 21, Land Defense & Water Protection Actions Ripple Across Turtle Island
- November 22, Hundreds Target U.S. Army Corps Building in St. Paul w #NoDAPL Message
- November 22, Anonymous DDOS Munitions Vendor After Sheriffs Attack #NoDAPL
- November 22, #NoDAPL Water Protector Faces Possible Loss Of Her Arm After Police Attack
- November 24, Water Protectors Bridge onto Turtle Island; Mandan Thanksgiving Street Feast
- November 25, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Announces Intent to Close Oceti Sakowin #NoDAPL Camp
- November 29, Excessive Force Lawsuit Filed Against Morton County Sheriff for November 20 Bridge Assault
- December 1, Direct Action Continues To Disrupt Dakota Access Pipeline Construction in Iowa
- December 3, Divest from DAPL; Three Wells Fargo Locations Targeted in Minneapolis, Eight People Locked Down and Two Arrested
- December 4, Army Corps Denies Dakota Access Pipeline Easement
- December 8, Veterans Apologize for Genocide & March to Backwater Bridge in Blizzard
- December 8, Nebraska Supplied State Troopers, Surveillance Aircraft to North Dakota Under EMAC
- December 12, #DivestFromDAPL Action Disrupts Wells Fargo Branch Grand Opening, Doors Secured with Bike Locks
- December 19, First Water Protector Trials Set for January as Another ND Pipeline Leaks
- January 2, Massive #DivestFromDAPL Banner Unfurled During Vikings Game at US Bank Stadium
- January 5, Interview: Water Protector who Scaled Vikings Stadium to Drop “US Bank DIVEST #NoDAPL” Banner
- January 15, Indigenous-Led Pipeline Resistance Camps Spread Across the USA
- January 24, Hundreds of Minnesotans Protest, Take to the Streets on Trump’s Inauguration
- January 25, Trump Pushes Forward DAPL & KXL Pipeline Approvals; Resistance Continues
- January 30, Denver Joins Global Prayer Action to #DefundDAPL
- February 7, Army Corps Grants Easement as Repression Continues at Standing Rock
- February 17, Eviction Threats Loom as Hundreds Remain at #NoDAPL Camps
- February 22, Militarized Force Executes Eviction of Main #NoDAPL Encampment
- February 23, North Dakota Dismantles #NoDAPL Oceti Camp
- February 27, Three Unicorn Riot Journalists Face Trial This Week From DAPL Coverage
- March 2, Three Unicorn Riot Journalists Have #NoDAPL Arrest Charges Dropped
- March 11, Rise With Standing Rock: Native Nations March on Denver
- March 22, Dakota Access Pipeline Sabotaged in Several States, Authorities Claim
- April 5, One Year Sacred Stone Celebration
- April 16, North Dakota Sheriff Advising South Dakota and Nebraska on Keystone XL
- April 16, North Dakota Sheriff Advising South Dakota and Nebraska on Keystone XL
- May 10, Dakota Access Pipeline Spills at South Dakota Pump Station
- May 29, DAPL Security Leak Shows Coordinated Surveillance and Repression of Water Protectors