- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 27, 2016

If he’s said it once, he’s said it a thousand times: Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier doesn’t care whether the Dakota Access pipeline gets built or not.

He cares about public safety. Nonetheless, the 53-year-old sheriff has become the man the pipeline protesters love to hate, the leader of what they have decried as the “militarized,” “sadistic” police response guilty of “psychological warfare,” “brutality,” even “torture.”

In response, Sheriff Kirchmeier has ramped up the criticism a few notches, pointing to “paid protesters” and “evil agitators” who have “hijacked” the Standing Rock Sioux while interfering with his efforts to safeguard the community and protect the free speech rights of law-abiding activists.

“This is not about the pipeline, this is not about the protesters. This is about the law, and we want to make sure the law is followed on all sides,” the sheriff said at a recent press conference. “The criminal activity, that just needs to stop. Public safety is No. 1, and everybody needs to follow the law.”

A native of Morton County, Sheriff Kirchmeier hasn’t had a day off since August as the department grapples with nearly daily eruptions from protesters, hundreds if not thousands of whom are camped on federal land.

His 34 deputies are pulling similar shifts with help from law enforcement in nine states in an effort that has cost the state $10 million so far.

The sheriff’s office has also dealt with numerous threats, including a security breach after anti-pipeline hackers released the name and address of a deputy.

Even as protesters blame the sheriff for an overly aggressive response, pointing to deputies in riot gear, the sheriff has drawn kudos for what his supporters describe as a measured response that has minimized injuries.

Despite several heated confrontations, harm to officers and protesters has been minor, with the exception of a serious arm wound sustained by Sophia Wilansky at the Nov. 20 melee on the Backwater Bridge near Mandan, North Dakota.

Where protesters have gained the upper hand is in the battle for national public opinion. The sheriff has been slammed for using pepper spray, water hoses, rubber bullets and other nonlethal force against protesters, even those who have set fires, thrown rocks and flaming debris, and hurled Molotov cocktails at officers.

Organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and the Standing Rock Sioux have called for the Justice Department to investigate the department for suspected civil rights violations, and a petition on Change.org has demanded the sheriff’s removal.

“As citizens of this country we have the right to participate in peaceful protest without being met by a militarized and biased police force more interested in protecting corporate interests than the people of North Dakota,” said the petition, which has gathered more than 100,000 signatures.

Led by the Standing Rock Sioux, the protesters are calling for the Obama administration to stop the 1,172-mile, four-state pipeline, citing concerns about water quality and tribal relics, even though the project has received the necessary federal and state permits.

The sheriff has strong support from North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, a Republican who has praised him for a “remarkable job in dealing with the all the issues brought about by these protests,” as well as Republican lawmakers and the National Sheriffs’ Association.

Still, the sheriff’s side of the story is often drowned out by the outraged reaction from protesters, who have received support from the environmental movement and Hollywood celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo and Shailene Woodley.

Several protest-friendly media outlets, including Young Turks, are reporting daily from within the camps. The three major television networks quoted opponents of the project seven times more than proponents from Oct. 27 through Nov. 15, according to the conservative Media Research Center.

The reports from last week’s eruption on the Backwater Bridge offer an example. The protest began after activists tried to clear a blockade in order to reach the highway, saying they were unable to access emergency services, then blasted officers for using “water cannons” against them in the cold.

At a press conference afterward, however, officers said they blocked the bridge because it was damaged by protesters during last month’s rioting. The deputies used water hoses, not “cannons,” which were brought by the local fire department to extinguish fires set by activists.

The county has tried to repair the bridge, but the state Department of Transportation has refused to evaluate the damage because of safety concerns posed by the protesters, hundreds of whom are camped out nearby.

Even so, the media coverage was dominated by criticism of law enforcement for treating protesters “like an enemy on the battlefield,” as Amnesty International USA spokesman Eric Ferrero said in a statement.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, called for the Justice Department to intervene after the Nov. 23 protest. He said the use of water hoses in subfreezing temperatures was “dangerous, cruel and unacceptable.”

Standing Rock chairman David Archambault II has repeatedly criticized law enforcement for its aggressive response to “peaceful and prayerful” protesters even as the tribe struggles to rein in a militant cadre of activists leading the violence.

Relief for the sheriff may be around the corner. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a Dec. 5 deadline for protesters to clear the camps on federal land north of the Cannonball River, which could redirect the activists’ ire from the sheriff to the federal government.

Mr. Dalrymple warned the Obama administration on Saturday that federal agents, not local law enforcement, will need to take the lead in removing the camps.

“Our state and local law enforcement agencies continue to do all they can to keep private property and public infrastructure free from unpermitted protest activities, and it’s past time that the federal government provides the law enforcement resources needed to support public safety and to enforce their own order to vacate,” Mr. Dalrymple said in a statement.

The protests, along with the never-ending public relations battle, are certainly not what he anticipated when he ran for his first term as sheriff about two years ago after a 29-year career with the North Dakota Highway Patrol.

As Sheriff Kirchmeier put it at last week’s press conference, “This has truly been an unprecedented event in North Dakota.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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