Jeffrey Otto
CNN  — 

The fallout from a police officer who followed a car thinking the man behind the wheel was Native American is testing the fragility of race relations in a South Dakota city.

The police officer in Rapid City resigned after he allegedly reported that “a young Native American male (was) driving a really new Mercedes car.” While city officials see the officer’s resignation in lieu of termination over alleged racial profiling as swift action and a sign of progress in a town with a long history of racial tensions, Indigenous organizers say the incident was not isolated.

The officer’s alleged comments represent a culture of discrimination toward Native Americans in the city’s police department, they said.

“You walk up to any Native American here in Rapid City and they can give you hours and hours of testimony on how we are harassed continuously,” said Monique “Muffie” Mousseau, an Oglala Lakota who lives in the city. “And don’t get me wrong, there are some good cops, but there are more bad cops than there are good cops.”

Last November, Jeffrey Otto, the former Rapid City police officer, was taking a girl to her foster home when he saw a car with out-of-state plates making a “prolonged stop at flashing red lights,” and started following it, according to a grievance order signed by a South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation judge.

That agency had reviewed a grievance petition filed by the officer earlier this year and Rapid City officials referred CNN to the state’s account of the incident.

When Otto reported the car, he told another officer that he wanted “to keep an eye on this car because it’s a young Native male driving this really nice car,” and followed the car to a hotel parking lot, Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender told CNN, citing a police report and internal investigation of the incident.

“Alright, so I watched it park, and it’s actually a middle-aged Asian guy that got out. So yeah, it’s going to be nothing,” Otto told the officer, according to the state’s department of labor order.

After Otto was called to speak with his supervisor about the incident, he was sent home, the state agency order said. Less than a week later, he was fired from the police department for racial profiling, according to a letter signed by Rapid City Police Chief Don Hendrick.

The city declined to release body camera and dashboard camera footage, as well as audio of the incident, citing the privacy of the girl who was in Otto’s vehicle.

“Mr. Otto used an extreme lack of judgment and as a result is no longer employed with the Rapid City Police Department. There is no place for this kind of behavior in the Rapid City Police Department and the department acted swiftly to address the issue,” Joel Landeen, an attorney representing the city, said in a statement.

Otto’s attorney, Rexford Hagg, disputes that Otto racially profiled the driver because, he said, the car windows were tinted. “You can’t racial profile someone you can’t see. Second, no person was ever stopped, detained, questioned or otherwise contacted. There was no victim,” Hagg told CNN.

Hagg said the police officer followed the car thinking it could be a drunk driver and made the comment until they were in the hotel parking lot when Otto thought he could partially identify the driver.

At the time of the incident, Hagg says his client was aware of a series of car burglaries and stolen vehicles at hotels in the city and police believed young Native Americans were involved.

Otto appealed his firing with the state but recently dropped his petition when a state judge ruled that he and the city would need to argue the case over a hearing, Landeen and Otto’s attorney told CNN.

The former officer came to an agreement with the city to drop his appeal before a hearing was held when the police department revised the reasoning for his departure from “racial profiling” to “lack of judgment” and his status changed to “resigned in lieu of termination,” attorneys for the city and the officer said.

The agreement doesn’t change the facts of the incident, the city says, and Otto won’t be allowed to work with the city again. The state agency overseeing law enforcement standards and training would have to review Otto’s case if seeks employment with another law enforcement agency in the state, Landeen said.

Hagg said the former officer was “made a scapegoat for the city trying to be more racially sensitive” and the case is an example of the city “jumping the gun too early.” Otto had not been previously accused of racial profiling, his attorney said.

Mayor Allender agrees that Otto did not make contact with the driver but said his actions showed that he was willing to do it.

“This was a police officer talking about his willingness to perhaps violate someone’s rights, which makes him a bad fit for this profession,” the mayor said.

Native Americans are ‘harassed continuously,’ organizers say

Rapid City, known to many as the gateway to Mount Rushmore, is home to more than 77,000 people. At least 11% of its residents identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, according to the US Census Bureau, and Indigenous people from the region visit the city regularly.

Numerous Indigenous families often travel to the city from the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, which is one of the most populous reservations in the United States.

Mousseau used to drive every day back and forth between Rapid City and the Pine Ridge Reservation, where she worked as a law enforcement officer. As the weeks passed, Mousseau says, Rapid City officers stopped her nearly a dozen times.

“They were giving me warnings, and they ran my license plates, they checked my insurance, they ran background checks on me and had me sitting there for over half an hour trying to find something on me,” said Mousseau, a co-founder of a non-profit group that advocates for Two-Spirit rights. Within Indigenous communities, Two-Spirit refers to people who possess both masculine and feminine spirits, but it can also be used to represent LGBTQ+ Indigenous people more broadly.

It was not until she spoke up about the issue with city officials that she stopped being pulled over by police, Mousseau said.

At least 11% of residents in Rapid City identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, US Census Bureau data shows.

When CNN asked the city and the police department about Mousseau’s allegations, Mayor Allender responded saying records showed Mousseau was stopped and arrested, once each, for traffic violations by Rapid City police officers.

Allender denied there is a culture of racial discrimination or racial profiling among city employees.

“Because we employ human beings, we are at risk of employing someone who holds bias for minorities and may even act on that bias. Every community in the world has this same risk,” the mayor said in a statement.

A 2015 study conducted by researchers from the University of South Dakota indicates that Native drivers are more likely to receive citations than other drivers in Rapid City.

The analysis, commissioned by the city’s police department, showed that 59.1% of those arrested between October 2013 and January of 2015 were Native American, compared to 37.1% who were White. The authors noted many of the arrests involving Native Americans were for outstanding warrants, probation offenses and failure to appear in court.

For years, local activists as well as the Rapid City-based non-profit advocacy organization NDN Collective, have denounced police misconduct in the city.

Natalie Stites Means, an organizer and an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who lives in Rapid City, said the community often feels the “weight of criminalization.”

“They start targeting our men really young. A young Native man can’t walk the streets without being accosted by police,” said Stites Means, who unsuccessfully ran to become the city’s mayor in 2019.

When asked whether there have been cases of racial profiling in the police department in the past five years, Allender, the city’s mayor, said no cases have been documented or brought to the attention of city officials.

“I doubt I go a single week without having some positive feedback from a Native American community member on the things going on in Rapid City,” the mayor said.

Karen Mortimer, the director of Mniluzahan Okolakiciyapi Ambassadors (MOA), said there’s a lot of work to be done for the “broken relationship” between Native and non-Native people in Rapid City to improve, and the incident with Otto hasn’t discouraged those who want to see that happen.

MOA has been focusing on improving race relations in the city since 2014 by hosting events and training for leaders across the city. The group recently began working more closely with city officials and merged with the city’s human relations commission, which handles discrimination claims within city limits.

“We know that change happens if there’s trust,” Mortimer said. “We’ve had 150 years of broken treaties and better up, and it (change) doesn’t happen overnight.”