Butch Herndon, Clinton police
Protestors gather outside the Clinton police station on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, in Clinton, Oklahoma. (Andrea DenHoed)

CLINTON — Shortly after demonstrators had gathered outside the Clinton police station Friday afternoon to protest mistreatment of Native Americans in their community, Chief of Police Paul Rinkel sent NonDoc a press release regarding the Aug. 31 death of a 37-year-old Indigenous man in police custody.

According to Rinkel’s summary, Clinton police officers had arrested Butch Herndon after citizens reported he was “acting strange” and “trying to enter occupied vehicles in the parking lot of a convenience store.”

Rinkel’s account of events was labeled “press release” and dated Sept. 2:

On 8-31-21 at about 12 noon, Clinton Police Department received multiple calls in reference to a subject that was “acting strange” and was trying to enter occupied vehicles in the parking lot of a convenience store located at 10th and Modelle. The callers advised that the subject was walking west on Modelle. The subject was being followed by witnesses and Officers located the subject in the 1200 block of Modelle as he was attempting to enter a locked car in a driveway.The subject appeared to be intoxicated and was placed into custody without incident. A short time later, the subject attempted to kick out the windows of a patrol car and became out of control. The subject was restrained, but no other force was used or required. Medical and Fire personnel were dispatched to the scene, but the subject refused to allow them to examine him. He was transported to the Clinton City Jail and placed on 15 minutes checks. A short time later, he was found to be unresponsive, and officers immediately began to render aid. He was transported to Clinton Regional Hospital where he passed away. 

The Clinton Police Department has asked the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the State Jail Inspector and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to investigate the death, which Rinkel said is “routine in this kind of situation.” OSBI posted a similar statement on Facebook, confirming the investigation is underway.

Rinkel sent his press release to NonDoc in response to an open records request for the original police report about the incident and any related video footage. Those records have not yet been provided.

Protestors question official accounts

Protestors march through Clinton, Oklahoma, on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. (Andrea DenHoed)

Friday’s protest was partly prompted by Herndon’s death.

Butch Herndon belonged to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, and some say his death is part of a pattern of mistreatment of Native Americans by Clinton police and area law enforcement. Replies to a Facebook post made by a woman who identified herself as Herndon’s ex-wife included an allegation from a witness who said they “called [the Oklahoma Highway Patrol] and told them they needed to get there because [the police] were abusing him.”

Cetan Sa Winyan, the director of the American Indian Movement’s Indian Territory chapter, organized Friday’s march. She said on Wednesday that she and others did not believe what they had heard of the police account and compared the situation to previous cases in the town.

“That’s natural for the Clinton police,” she said. “They’ve done that before. They’ve done that with Benjamin Whiteshield. They did that with Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket. Drake Starr, he was murdered (…) and the police haven’t done nothing about it. There’s countless stories of what the Clinton police does up there to the Native community.”

Whiteshield and Goodblanket were both shot by police who had to calls because the men were having mental health crises. Their deaths were the focus of a march that happened in Clinton last year. Starr, who was 17, was found dead in a truck in July, and the investigation was handed over to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to news reports.

2020 Clinton march

Clinton protest

‘Like it happened yesterday’: Clinton protest recalls past local police shootings by Andrea DenHoed

Herndon’s death also occurred the same week that a Cheyenne and Arapaho fifth-grader in Clinton reported that two older students held him down in a school bathroom and cut off several inches of his hair.

Long hair has deep cultural, personal and spiritual significance in Native American communities, and the incident was the central focus of this week’s march.

A few days after the incident, the school district and Gov. Reggie Wassana of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes released a joint statement saying, “While some details remain disputed, Clinton Public Schools and Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal leadership agree that the initial report that the student was held down by two older students while his hair was cut is inaccurate and did not occur.”

The protestors, however, including the boy and his family, stood by his story. Cetan Sa Winyan said she believed the joint statement was simply an attempt to make the situation go away.

“They’re blowing smoke,” she said.

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