FARGO — In mid-August, Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney headed for southeastern Morton County, the scene of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and, except for a few breaks, he’s been there ever since.
Serving as the elected sheriff of what’s by far the state’s largest county while consumed by policing the ongoing tribal protests of the oil pipeline has been a daily act of priority-balancing, Laney said.
“I’m very blessed to have a command team that I believe is second to none,” Laney said. “They can hold the fort with most things, but there are certainly things that need my attention.”
Laney, who is halfway through a third term after first taking office in January 2007, said he feels it’s important for him to do everything he can to help Morton County in its time of need because Cass County got help during the flood fights of 2009, 2010 and 2011. In the worst of those floods, in 2009, hundreds of law enforcement officers from around the state and country came to Cass County for more than 40 days, he said.
“The fact that we've had to go out of state to bring in assistance,” he said, “how do we in-state not help first?”
Hundreds of law enforcement officials from all over the state and other parts of the country have been helping police the protests at the request of Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, whose force is stretched thin. Laney has been the operations chief for the law enforcement presence to the protests.
Last week, a representative from the Western States Sheriffs’ Association and the National Sheriffs’ Association said members of both groups have pledged to help Morton County. Laney is a board member for the national group.
Cass County Commission Chairwoman Mary Scherling agreed with Laney’s sentiment that pitching in is worth the heavy strain on the sheriff’s time.
“When we’ve had floods, for example, we've relied on many many outside agencies to help us with all of our sandbagging and dike patrols and search and rescue and so on and so forth,” she said. “The counties don't live in a bubble. We have to help each other and we’re glad to be able to do that.”
Scherling said she knows Laney is in “constant communication” with his subordinates in Fargo. Laney said he’s been able to take care of business back in Cass County by phone, by email or with scanned documents.
Cass County Chief Deputy Col. Rick Majerus is in charge while Laney is out. The sheriff said he does come back to Cass County when he’s absolutely needed.
Marty Johnson, Scherling’s opponent in November’s County Commission election, didn’t return a phone message Wednesday.
The pipeline construction site targeted by protesters is near the Missouri River just north of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Protesters, many of whom are American Indians, say construction of the $3.8 billion oil pipeline would desecrate burial grounds and other sites sacred to Indians. They also say a rupture would threaten water quality in the Missouri River, which the pipeline must go under as it continues on its way to Illinois.
Laney estimated that there have been 7,000 to 8,000 protesters, though more recently the numbers have dropped to 2,500 to 3,000 who are in it for the long haul. The majority are peaceful but 300 to 400 are “extremely confrontational,” he said, accusing them of trying to disrupt construction and intimidating farm workers. As of Tuesday, Oct. 11, the protests had led to 123 arrests.
State officials and lawmakers have criticized the lack of financial and law enforcement support from the federal government, given that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers surprisingly withdrew its required approval of the pipeline’s Missouri River crossing for further review -- an announcement made Sept. 9, just minutes after a federal court ruling in support of the pipeline’s construction.
The number of law enforcement officials on the scene has fluctuated based on the need, though Laney said he couldn’t say how many because of security concerns. Several of his deputies have rotated in and out of Morton County over the last few months, he said, but it’s hard for him to stay away because he’s one of three top commanders on the scene.
Cass County taxpayers won’t bear the cost of deploying the deputies and Laney to the protest, and patrols in Cass County and jail security haven’t been affected, a department spokesman previously told The Forum. The state Emergency Commission voted last month to borrow up to $6 million from the state-owned Bank of North Dakota to cover overtime and other protest-related costs.
Laney said the days are long there, leaving only enough time to outside of work for him to grab a bite and sleep. Deputies who volunteer to rotate in all work seven days a week with no time off until they rotate out again, he said.
“I’m not going to lie, we’re all tired,” he said, but law enforcement officers expect that they may have to make sacrifices.
Asked how long he thinks he’ll be needed in Morton County, Laney said that depends on the protesters.
The company building the pipeline, which was 87 percent complete in North Dakota as of the end of September, said Tuesday that it intends to resume construction promptly after the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request to stop work on the pipeline in places where it believes the project will desecrate sacred land was denied Sunday.
Protesters have also said they don’t plan to leave anytime soon.
“This currently is a situation that there’s no way one agency alone could handle this,” Laney said.