The Yankton Sioux Tribe is claiming police used excessive force to prevent one its tribal elders, 64-year-old Raymond Cournoyer Sr., from seeing his dying mother in a nursing home last weekend. Cournoyer was detained following the incident with police and wasn’t able to see his mother before she passed.
Cournoyer, who spoke to Argus Leader on Tuesday, says he spent most of Saturday at the nursing home and that his mother was doing well, so he left that evening and returned home. He says the call he got from sister telling him to rush back to the city of Wagner to say his goodbyes was unexpected.
According to the Grand Forks Herald, an affidavit from the South Dakota Highway Patrol says one of their troopers clocked Cournoyer, a resident of Lake Andes, doing 72 in 65 mph zone. Cournoyer’s refusal to pull over prompted the trooper to call for backup from the Wagner Police Department when the vehicle crossed into those city limits.
The trooper followed Cournoyer to the nursing home. The Yankton Sioux Tribe released a statement to the press, and its claims of what happened next were summed up by the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan:
“After verbally informing the officer of his intention to be at his mother’s side during her final moments and then taking a few steps, Cournoyer was allegedly grabbed from behind and pushed against his vehicle. At that point in time, the tribe claims a member of the Wagner City Police Department arrived on scene and slammed Cournoyer to the ground face first and tazed him. Both officers then placed Cournoyer in handcuffs, the tribe said.”
The tribe further claimed that the Wagner police officer, Eli Kuhlman, who fired the taser, was a recent hire and uncertified. Argon Leader confirmed that claim with Wagner’s city attorney. Kuhlman had been with the six-person force for less than a year and had that full year to complete officer certification.
In fact, Cournoyer’s daughter Philomena, who was a witness and posted photos of the encounter to Facebook, wrote in her post that she had to put her own skills to use that night due to the officer’s inexperience:
Speaking to Argus Leader, Chiara Cournoyer described her sister Philomena as a trained medical technician with a goal of becoming a tribal police officer.
Philomena further claimed in her post that the reason her father wasn’t able to say his goodbyes is that the officers made the family wait outside the nursing home for 45 minutes while they talked over what to charge Raymond with.
According to the South Dakota Highway Patrol, the eventual charge was eluding law enforcement. That agency has since claimed in a press statement that the behavior of its trooper, Weston Fischer, was justified that night:
“South Dakota Highway Patrol has reviewed the actions of our trooper during this incident, and the trooper’s actions were professional and within South Dakota Highway Patrol policy. The South Dakota Highway Patrol did not request DCI investigation, but we have and will fully cooperate with it.”
The aforementioned investigation into the incident, being conducted by the state’s Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), came at the request of the city of Wagner police chief, Argus Leader confirmed.
As of Friday, whether or not charges will be brought against the officers remains unclear. In an update on the case on Thursday, Argus Leader reported that that if charges are indeed filed, they won’t be handled by the county prosecutor.
The reason State Attorney Steve Cotton gave is that Raymond Cournoyer Sr. has been an expert witness on family law and tribal matters on too many cases for the county.
“In order to avoid any appearance of impropriety, we’re going to transfer it over to another office,” Cotton said, adding that because Cournoyer is “knowledgeable about child rearing and tribal culture, he’s a great expert witness for us.”
A determination into what agency would handle any potential charges has yet to be made.
As the Cournoyer family grieves the loss of a family member, the Yankton Sioux Tribe has called for a meeting with the city government of Wagner to discuss the issue. From the tribe’s statement to the press:
“We do not know if there is room to have a respectful discussion about the incident but we must try. Therefore, we have invited the City of Wagner’s Mayor, City Council, and Chief of Police to meet so that we can exchange information, opinions and ideas on ways our communities can address this incident and move forward. We hope they take us up on the offer.”