Get the kids and leave home right now, Lieutenant Jason Stugelmeyer said when his wife answered the phone on Nov. 23.
For weeks, Stugelmeyer, an officer at the Bismarck Police Department, had watched demonstrators at Standing Rock using increasingly violent tactics as they protested the Dakota Access pipeline.
They’d roughed up private security guards; they’d slashed the tires of police vehicles and loitered outside of officers’ residences with video cameras; they’d tried to drive a stampede of buffalo toward law enforcement, also using drones in an attempt to down a police aircraft, Stugelmeyer says. One woman allegedly fired her .38 pistol at a deputy, narrowly missing him.
But in November, tensions between police and opponents of the pipeline became personal. Throughout the month, North Dakota law enforcement officers working the protests were “doxxed,” their birthdates, home addresses, and other information posted online. One Morton County elected official had his credit card hacked.
“The protest supporters have used social media to threaten, harass, and intimidate law enforcement,” says Maxine Herr, a spokeswoman for the Morton County Sheriff.
One opponent of the pipeline, Alexander Hennek, contacted Stugelmeyer’s sister, vowing, “Your family pictures will be spread all over Facebook along with information.” Days later, Hennek posted photos of Stugelmeyer’s family, including of his wife and his teenage daughter, along with his home address and phone number.
Hennek could not be reached by phone and did not respond to repeated Facebook requests for comment.
On Nov. 23, Bismarck law enforcement had received a credible threat, information that protestors may have been heading out in teams to hurt officers.
“You have to take it seriously,” Stugelmeyer says. “Obviously, I signed up to be a law-enforcement officer. There’s some risk. I’ve been doing it for 16 years. But I’ve never had to deal with the threats against my family. I hate that. That’s what I signed up for, but my family didn’t sign up for that.”
On Twitter and Facebook, some pipeline protestors — or “water protectors,” as they call themselves — have compared police to terrorists, threatening to retaliate with violence, according to social media posts provided by law enforcement and reviewed by Heat Street.
“Go ahead and back the cops,” wrote one Facebook user under the name of Lowell Osborne. “I hope they do attack the water protectors, You will see a huge influx of protectors who will be armed and ready to shoot to kill all those cops and DAPL workers. I’ll be one of them, you cqn bet on it.”
In a phone interview, Osborne admitted he had written the post but said it was a mistake.
“I would never show up and shoot a cop or anybody working for the company,” he said. “On my part, I was hot-headed in what I said. That’s not who I am. I am completely nonviolent. … I would never do such a thing. Period.”
To date, 566 people have been arrested during the Standing Rock protests, with charges ranging from attempted murder, to conspiracy to endanger by fire and explosion, to rioting.
Authorities say fewer than 10 percent of those arrested are from North Dakota.
“While the majority of the people who have participated in this protest have been peaceful, there also has been an active group that prefers violence,” says Jonathan Thompson, the executive director of the National Sheriff’s Association. “Law enforcement been shot at, had things like Molotov cocktails, rocks, and feces thrown at them. These acts have been done by professional (paid) protestors, that are not from North Dakota and have traveled here to cause trouble.”
By deadline, media contacts for the Standing Rock Sioux had not responded to emailed questions about the police’s claims about violence, threats, and intimidation.
Stugelmeyer provided Heat Street with video, shot using law enforcement’s thermal imaging on a fixed-wing plane operated by law enforcement, that shows protestors throwing Molotov cocktails at law enforcement on Oct. 27.
“If those hit you,” he says, “you’d basically die. It breaks, and all the liquid—it’s flammable—goes all over you, and it’s instantaneous fire. … We were also very concerned about officers being shot.”
— Jillian Melchior (@JillianKayM) December 7, 2016
He described watching protestors attack a private security worker protecting the construction equipment used to build the pipeline. “They grabbed the security guard, put him over their heads, threw him over the fence,” Stugelmeyer says. “I saw it.”
Stugelmeyer says local law enforcement has often been dramatically outnumbered by protestors — sometimes, by as many as one officer to 10 demonstrators.
“What are we supposed to do?” he says, adding that law enforcement has repeatedly tried to de-escalate situations, using less-than-lethal force when needed. “They’ve made it very clear that their goal is to stop the pipeline at all costs. What does that mean? Sometimes, a lot of them are violent.”
But the protestors are extremely media savvy, and they’ve been effective in getting out allegations of police brutality. Since thousands of demonstrators flocked to North Dakota in opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline, law enforcement has been overwhelmed. Some days, they’ve been quite literally putting out fires, flames set to police vehicles — so they’ve had little time to publicize their side of the story.
“We’re behind the game,” Stugelmeyer says wearily. “We’re losing the social-media war. We realize that.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.