Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: 'Is This What You Think Of Us?': Seeking justice for Lavan Yankton

'Why wasn't his dash cam on?' Native community demands accountability from police

String of incidents, some deadly, prompt calls for justice in Nebraska

Police in Lincoln call Lakota man's broken leg an accident
By Kevin Abourezk

They hoisted their fists and shouted.

They held high signs with phrases like “Hold police accountable” and “Caution, they might run you down” that began to smear as sprinkles turned to pouring rain.

They called for justice, evoking names like Zachary Bear Heels, Micah Taylor and Seth Whiteface. And they added another name to that list of Native Americans who have suffered at the hands of police in Nebraska – Lavan Yankton Jr.

“On Friday, they found my brother in an alley and he took off running. And yes, that’s wrong. You shouldn’t run,” said Leo Yankton, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and a cousin to Lavan Yankton Jr.

“He shouldn’t be arguing and fighting with his girlfriend. Even though those are wrong, a police officer doesn’t have the right to run you down with his car, and why wasn’t his dash cam on?”

Leo Yankton holds a sign during a May 3, 2018, protest in Lincoln, Nebraska, that was held to seek justice for his cousin, who was struck by a police cruiser last week and had his leg broken. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

On Thursday in Lincoln, nearly 50 protestors gathered before the Hall of Justice – the city’s primary court house and law enforcement center – seeking justice for Lavan Yankton Jr. They came to question police about their actions on Friday, April 27, when officers found Lavan Yankton Jr. in south Lincoln.

The 28-year-old Oglala Lakota man had been wanted on three warrants, one for misdemeanor domestic assault, one for felony domestic assault and one for failing to appear in court. He was leaving an apartment shortly before 11 a.m. when officers saw him.

The officers began chasing Yankton, who ran away. As he was running through an alley, another officer in a cruiser began pursuing Yankton, who was then struck by the cruiser.

#NativeLivesMatter: Native Americans are more likely to be killed by law enforcement

From his hospital bed later that night, Yankton said it appeared the officer driving the cruiser intentionally swerved to hit him.

“He came diagonal,” he said. “I don’t know if it was to stop me or what, but he ran me over.”

His left leg was broken in three places and required surgery.

“He didn’t have to run me over,” he said, crying. “I was stopping, but he just kept going.”

Lavan Yankton Jr.

Lincoln Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister said Thursday an initial investigation found the crash that left Yankton injured was accidental. He said the officer driving the cruiser didn’t turn on his emergency lights, which would have automatically activated the vehicle’s dash camera.

“We completed a canvas of the area searching for witnesses and surveillance footage,” Bliemeister said. “None were found.”

He laid much of the blame for Yankton’s injuries on his decision to run away.

“Flight from law enforcement because of a felony warrant in a heavily populated urban area is a high-risk act that we attempt to prevent,” he said.

Leo Yankton, who is co-host of Indianz.Com's "Indian Times" podcast, said he is concerned the crash that injured his cousin was the result of retaliation by a police department that he is currently suing.

In February, he filed a civil complaint in federal court against the City of Lincoln, Lincoln Police Department and Lancaster County. The complaint alleges the excessive use of force by two Lincoln police officers during an incident that occurred on August 23, 2017, at his home.

During that incident, the two officers entered Yankton’s home after receiving a call about an alleged domestic violence situation in the home involving Lavan Yankton Jr. and his girlfriend. Leo Yankton attempted to intervene, questioning officers about why they entered his home without his consent and forced his 14-year-old niece to walk outside in her underwear.

The officers handcuffed Leo Yankton, though he said he demonstrated no physical aggression toward them, fastening the cuffs so tightly around his wrists that they left deep red marks.

The officers also cited him for interfering with an investigation, a charge that was later dropped. Both officers were later forced to resign, one for police brutality related to a separate incident and the other for sexual assault related to a separate incident.

The incident last August was related to the three warrants that led police to confront Lavan Yankton Jr. last week.

"We believe they ran him over in retaliation to our civil lawsuit against the police department for violations of our civil rights," Leo Yankton said.

Harmony Yankton, Leo Yankton’s niece, said she is tired of seeing her family have to endure police brutality.

“I don’t trust the justice system, and I’m 15,” she said. “That is not something I should have to be worried about.”

Winnebago activist Frank LaMere speaks on May 3, 2018, in Lincoln, Nebraska, during a protest held to seek justice for Lavan Yankton Jr., who had his leg broken after being run over by a police cruiser last week. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Winnebago activist Frank LaMere spoke before the protesters on Thursday.

It wasn’t his first time coming to Lincoln to seek justice for Native people, and until police and city leaders change the way they treat Natives, it won’t be his last, he said.

In 1992, LaMere visited Lincoln when police shot and killed Seth Whiteface late one night. Whiteface was drunk and had pointed a toy gun at police before he was shot.

LaMere also came to Lincoln in September 1994 when Francisco Renteria died of asphyxiation after a struggle with police.

He said he stood beside Whiteface’s four children at a rally not long after his death.

“He was shot and killed on the streets of Lincoln, Nebraska because he was intoxicated and he went to one of the exclusive restaurants, peeked in the window and made everybody uncomfortable,” he said.

“It seems like everyone time I turn around I have to come to Lincoln to say, ‘Is this what you think of our people that you would treat us like this?’ Is this what you would think of this Yankton family that you would chase this young man and you would run over him?”

Protesters rally in Lincoln, Nebraska, on May 3, 2018, to seek justice for Lavan Yankton Jr., who had his leg broken after being run over by a police cruiser last week. Photos by Kevin Abourezk

He called on the protesters Thursday to continue to fight for justice, to antagonize city leaders and police officers who abuse their powers.

“Nothing changes unless somebody is made to feel uncomfortable,” LaMere said. “Nothing changes unless you make yourselves uncomfortable. I have come to know that is the only way things change.”

He criticized Mayor Chris Beutler, Police Chief Bliemeister and the Lincoln City Council for failing to appear at Thursday’s protest.

“Nobody is being responsive to our people in our communities and they have got to begin to do that,” he said.


Native Americans are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than any other racial or ethnic group, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

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