RAPID CITY, South Dakota — During his lifetime, few people would have predicted that Barney Peoples would be shot to death by police.
Mostly, Peoples presented a far greater threat to his own health and safety than to that of others. Homeless and battling alcohol addiction, he often slept rough with friends at the Journey Museum grounds in Rapid City during the warmer months.
Although passionate about social justice issues and well-read, Peoples was a loner who struggled to find his place in the world. He preferred to face his diabetes and mental illness himself, often refusing help from his sister Trinity Peoples, who never gave up on him.
“I knew where to find him; I’d try to get him to take his medications and eat something but he hated to be told what to do,” Trinity said.
As the big sister who looked after him for most of his childhood, Trinity is still in shock and disbelief that the brother she describes as a “gentle giant” was killed in March 2022 by police during a call to investigate a burglary.
Peoples, 51 of the Oglala Lakota Nation, was known by police. According to records obtained by ICT, Peoples had a history of arrests in Rapid City dating back to 2004, mostly for non-violent offenses such as having an open container of alcohol in public, possession of marijuana, disorderly conduct and one count of domestic violence. None of the charges involved a gun.
“I don’t think they needed to shoot him,” she said. Trinity and other family members question why police didn’t use more de-escalation techniques before discharging 15 rounds of ammunition toward Peoples; he was shot six times and died at the scene.
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Peoples’ family, friends and some members of the Native community maintain that police used excessive force and describe the killing as murder.
In May, Rapid City police showed members of local media video footage from four of the officers responding to the scene who were wearing body cameras.
Police allowed ICT to view the footage from one of the cameras.
According to Scott Sitts, assistant chief of the Rapid City Police Department, this is the first time that the agency has allowed the media to view police body cam footage. Although South Dakota state legislators introduced a bill in 2020 that would have regulated how police body cam recordings are released to the public, the bill failed to pass.
Currently, the Republican-led state has no laws regulating police video recordings.
Tension was running high in Rapid City during the time Peoples was shot. One of the owners of the Grand Gateway Hotel in Rapid City wrote in a Facebook post in March that she wouldn’t “allow a Native American to enter our business,” following a shooting involving two teenagers. According to Rapid City police, both the victim and shooting suspect are Native.
On March 25, Native activists and community members organized a march protesting the hotel owners' statements. Later, NDN Collective, a Rapid City based Indigenous advocacy organization, and Sunny Red Bear, the collective’s director of racial equity, filed a lawsuit alleging that the hotel discriminated against them by not renting them a room because they are Native American, violating the federal Civil Rights Act.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, at least 11 percent of Rapid City residents identify as American Indian or Alaska Native.
Brendan Johnson, former U.S. attorney for South Dakota and attorney for the plaintiffs, said the “rest of the world” needs to know what’s going on in Rapid City.
On July 4 of 2021, a demonstration in the city called for better treatment of Indigenous people by police and others.
In an email to ICT, Brendyn Medina, community relations specialist with the Rapid City police, wrote, “The decision to allow the media to view the body-worn camera footage was made in an effort to combat an increasingly false narrative being spread throughout the community. We felt that it was important to show members of the press that the detailed report from the SD Attorney General’s Office was mirrored in the footage captured by the officers’ body cameras. We were only comfortable showing the video to members of the press after Mr. Peoples’ family had been allowed to see the video, and after the Attorney General’s report was made public.”
Medina declined to comment on the nature of the “false narrative throughout the community.”
Footage showing the moments that led up to Peoples’ shooting death unfold in a few adrenaline-filled moments.
On March 26, six Rapid City police officers and a canine unit responded to a 911 call of a burglary in progress. In the footage, the owner of the property meets officers in the driveway of his home, telling them that someone is on the upper floor of his home and that there are several firearms stored there.
The officers’ tension is palpable as they enter the home that afternoon; loud music seems to come from a distant location in the house as officers repeatedly shout, “Rapid City police, show yourself!”
The officers' words seem to jumble together nervously, their meaning partially obscured over the music and commotion.
Cautiously, the police make their way up a stairway into a narrow hallway; the music grows noticeably louder as they announce their intention to release the dog. As viewers, we are alarmingly present as the eye of the camera peeks around the door jamb into the room. We catch a glimpse of a man seated on the floor pointing what appears to be a rifle at the door; a smear of blood is visible on the floor.
Medina reported that the blood may have been related to a recent medical operation to one of Peoples’ extremities in which stitches opened up.
The camera quickly withdraws, and police command the man to drop his gun. Almost immediately, the camera shows the officer's hand pointing a pistol around the door jamb into the room, firing several times. As the officer enters the room, we see a man lying on the floor. Although police call for an ambulance, the man, later identified as Peoples, dies soon afterward at the scene.
Sitts reported that another officer also fired a gun, but ICT was unable to see this from the available footage.
According to a database created by the Washington Post measuring the number of police shootings in the U.S. since 2015, South Dakota, with 28 shootings per million people, ranked No. 3 among surrounding plains states North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado.
After viewing all four versions of police body cam footage, journalists with the Rapid City Journal reported that the footage “appears to align with the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation’s report on the shooting death of Barney Peoples Jr.”
Investigators wrote, “It is the conclusion of this report and the Office of Attorney General that the Rapid City Police officers were justified in firing their weapons and using lethal force.”
According to the criminal investigation report, a drug screen conducted on Peoples tested positive for methamphetamine and had a blood alcohol content of .053. The level for determining if a person is driving under the influence of alcohol is 0.08 percent, according to the South Dakota Department of Public Safety.
In an interview with ICT, Sitts speculated that meth may have impaired Peoples’ decision making process.
“This is a very sad and unfortunate situation; Mr. Peoples made several decisions and pointed a loaded firearm at responding officers that really gave them no other choice but to defend themselves,” he said.
Bernard Peoples, Barney’s brother, cited a recent police standoff at a restaurant in Rapid City with an armed man in which the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office’s use of a Special Response Team enabled them to arrest the man alive.
“I understand they (police) talked to the man for quite awhile,” Peoples said. “They (police) could have taken a lot more time with Barney, backed off and come up with a strategic plan of some kind.”
In an email response to ICT, Medina wrote, “It’s important to note that this (Peoples’ shooting) differs from the incident at Pancheros (restaurant). That subject displayed a firearm but never pointed it at anybody.”
Canupa Gluha Mani of the Oglala Lakota Nation, who is serving as spokesperson for the family, reported he is conducting an independent investigation of Peoples’ shooting and pursuing a lawsuit against police.
In an interview with the Rapid City Journal, Mani said, “Like many of us living on the reservation and elsewhere, Barney was homeless but does he deserve to get murdered that way at the discretion of Pennington County?”
Lead photo: Trinity Peoples holds a photo of her brother Barney Peoples who was shot by Rapid City police during a burglary investigation. Photo by Mary Annette Pember/ICT