Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney: His Side

Dakota Access Pipeline Protest in Morton County, North Dakota

The biggest story of last year really started gaining momentum in August.

That’s when hundreds of people trekked to the site of the Dakota Access oil pipeline in Morton County, to protest.

But at least one man from Cass County also headed there, not to protest, but to keep the peace.

We are not here to pick sides.  We are here to present the facts of a story and let you make up your own mind.

For the past five months, we have brought you the tales of the mostly peaceful, but at times very violent, protests against a commercial venture to move North Dakota oil to Illinois.

Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney was called into action and reluctantly became the face of the people enforcing the laws of the land.

“The only thing that we’re armed with is our prayers.”

“We never meant ever to disrespect or disrupt their right to protest peacefully and prayer peacefully we take an oath to defend that as much as we take an oath to stop the violent end of it,” said Sheriff Paul Laney.

It all began early last August. Sheriff Paul Laney was watching the Summer Olympics at home when Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier called for help.

“So we answered the call and I went out and what I thought was going to be,” said Laney.  “I told my guys initially I would imagine we’d be there a week or two max. I don’t think any of us in our wildest dreams would have imagined it grew to 8,000 people and the violence that we saw.”

While Sheriff Kirchmeier lead the law enforcement effort, Sheriff Laney’s role quickly grew into a sort of “face” of the law enforcement effort.

It was in large part due to his nearly 28 years in law enforcement and his time as commander of the Red River Valley SWAT Team.

He was front and center at briefings. He was on the front-lines.

But on the night of the largest skirmish, Sheriff Laney wasn’t there.

He was on a short break to spend time with family for Thanksgiving.

“I was just about there when I got the call that the violent element of the protesters were trying to attack the bridge,” he said.

It was November 20, 2016 when protesters decided they were going to confront officers.

“That night they came for us.  They wanted the bridge back and they wanted to get through us,” he explained.  “They wanted to get back up to get in the path of the pipeline.  What started it was when they backed a semi up and hooked it to the barricades that we put in place and started yanking em away that started it then they started coming towards, started lighting fires, they started using fire hoses to put out fires and they tried to come through that and it just kind of went from there.”

It was the night 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky, a protester from New York, claims her left arm was nearly “blown off” after officers threw a grenade at her.

It’s a claim that authorities, including Laney, strongly dispute.

“I think you’re going to find through the investigation that wasn’t the case,” he said.  “We’ll let the ATF and the FBI tell you what happened that night when they conclude their investigation.  Granted, we all have the right to remain silent and not testify but is there a reason if you want to go tell a story why do they not want to talk to the grand jury?”

Protesters also claim that law enforcement sprayed them with water cannons in the sub-freezing weather.

It ignited national media coverage and claims of excessive force and abuse.

“People were saying ‘well you shouldn’t have sprayed them with water’. We weren’t spraying them with water to start with,” he said.  “I talked to the commanders out there, they were trying to put out the fires, they kept trying to come through.  It’s a very simple way not to get wet, stay out of the water.”

Laney was involved in many confrontations on the Backwater Bridge and on Turtle Hill….including the day 300 to 400 protesters came across the water.

“Obviously we’re on TV I won’t use the expletives they used but let’s just say ‘are you ready to blanking die today, we’re coming for you, I hope you’re ready to die today and today is your day and you’ve got dozens yelling that stuff at you,” said Laney.

Laney said many of the protesters put on ballistics vests, helmets and gas masks, grabbing shields and clubs.

“We didn’t just automatically when we saw that open up with gas, start launching sponge rounds, we didn’t start using less lethal immediately,” he said. “Even when they do that we would wait until the last second to engage hoping either they were posturing or bluffing because nobody wins in a confrontation.”

Is he surprised that he hasn’t seen any deaths?

“Yes, yes.  I, yes,” Laney said.

And then there have been the threats made against law enforcement officers and their families, including death threats.

“Myself, my family they posted….they tweeted out a picture of my home address here in the metro area with the picture of a bullet. Pretty much only one way to take that,” he said.

He also battled what he calls a social media machine.

The ‘Jimmy Dore Show’ on YouTube showed a picture of the sheriff.

“This guy’s a criminal,” said the host. “If you don’t know what’s been happening up there, the cops are the ones who are criminals.”

Laney said it was hard to compete with the lies. He even ran into it in his off hours.

While having dinner with a fellow law enforcement leader, they were confronted by two self-proclaimed water defenders.

The five minute confrontation was recorded, but only a few seconds were put on social media and it went viral in no time.

Laney is seen on the video saying: “Chief Ziegler and Sheriff Laney and now you have about two seconds to go, okay guys, let us eat our dinner in peace. Have a good night.”

An unidentified woman responded, “awesome, thank you so much you guys are exactly, no we are home.”

“Now I’m having to defend why we escorted two people out of a restaurant who were causing a disturbance and if anybody took two seconds to look we were sitting at our table, you know, trying to have a peaceful conversation but it just escalated to the point where the owner wanted them out everybody in the restaurant it was causing a huge disturbance,” Laney explained.

There were also concerns back at home.

Then Cass County Commissioner Ken Pawluk questioned the time Laney spent away from the county and the cost.

“I think his question was more along the lines of how long is this going to be considered an emergency and how long you think we’re going to need to be out there,” Laney said. “Nobody knew. We don’t have a crystal ball.  And I think he understood that and I think he wanted to ask the questions to let people know ‘hey we are thinking about this, we are talking about this’.”

Protesters got a major victory in early December, thanks to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decision to deny an easement for the pipeline under Lake Oahe.

At the same time, Laney was hit with accusations of bullying and verbally abusing a former employee.

“I’d like to suggest the Cass County Commission that you consider more vigilance on monitoring the sheriff’s office,” said Gail Wischmann who retired as a sergeant from the Cass County Sheriff’s Office in early November.

In December, the 34-year law enforcement veteran asked the county commission to investigate the sheriff, claiming Laney threatened her after she resigned.

“I think the answer to that is what happened the next day…nothing,” Laney said.  “Yes, I had a very disgruntled employee that took some shots and stated her case and you know anytime you’re in a leadership position if everybody loves you you’re probably not doing your job.”

Wischmann also called it a hostile work environment for women, but Laney disputes that.

“One of my biggest things I’m proud of is the number of women that are in leadership positions in this organization,” he said.

Laney said 42 percent of his command staff is female.

Forty percent of patrol deputies are female.

The national average is 12 percent.

“It’s a privilege to wear this badge, not an entitlement,” said Laney.

Laney returned home from the protest full-time in early December, but his service in Morton County may not be over.

When asked if he’ll be called back to serve Laney said, “We’re on standby. I won’t give out numbers for tactical reasons or what but I can tell you there is a significant number of us on standby. ”

Sheriff Laney and other officers have go-bags packed and he said they’re ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

He said protesters voices have been heard, the dispute over the treaties needs to be solved by the Federal government and the courts will make the final decision.

He also said he saw a disturbing post recently that sums up the actions by many of the more militant and violent protesters.

F Standing Rock, f the water, I’m here to fight the police.  Pretty much says what we’re going to deal with,” said Laney. “My hope is they stay home, your voice has been heard, leave North Dakota and go home.”

A few hundred protesters remain.

The Army Corps wants to clear the area by February 22 but the tribe is not calling on law enforcement to forcibly remove them.

The latest round of arrests made last week on private property included Chase Iron Eyes, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Representative from North Dakota in the November election.

He was charged with inciting a riot.

In a Facebook post, Iron Eyes says President Trump is the one inciting riots.

He also says he will fight on.

Of the more than 700 arrests made since August, more than 90 percent are people from out of North Dakota.

As for what happens next, we will have to wait and see and we’ll keep covering the story.

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