Private security guards who deployed dogs on protesters at a North Dakota oil pipeline demonstration were not properly licensed and could face criminal charges, according to a local investigation.
The Native American-led protests of the Dakota access pipeline received national attention in September when officers allegedly pepper-sprayed activists while guard dogs attacked protesters in a confrontation that was caught on video by the news program Democracy Now!
On Wednesday, the Morton County sheriff’s office, which has been leading the police response to the demonstration and conducted mass arrests over the weekend, announced that it had investigated private guards working for the pipeline and determined that “dog handlers were not properly licensed to do security work in the state of North Dakota”.
The disclosure is significant at the continuing pipeline protest, where members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their supporters say law enforcement officers have become increasingly aggressive and militarized, using excessive force against peaceful, unarmed activists and targeting journalists for arrest.
Leota Eastman Iron Cloud, a Native American activist from South Dakota who has been at the protests for months, told the Guardian by phone on Wednesday that she was present when private guards brought dogs and mace and went after demonstrators on 3 September.
“We are here in prayer, and they came for war,” she said, explaining that she continued protesting even after she was hit with pepper spray. “I can’t believe that people out there can actually do this to other human beings.”
The tribe and other environmental and indigenous rights’ activists have argued that the planned $3.7bn oil pipeline, which would transport fracked crude from North Dakota to a refinery near Chicago, poses a major threat to the local water supply and to the cultural heritage of the Native Americans.
Opponents have challenged the project in court with little success. But the federal government, which provided initial approval of construction, announced last month that it would reassess its decision and delay issuing permits.
Police have accused the activists of a range of charges, including criminal trespass, engaging in riots, resisting arrest and assaulting officers. But protesters have argued that they have been consistently nonviolent and that law enforcement has indiscriminately arrested people present at the site, including film-makers and reporters.
Security officials told the Morton County sheriff’s office that “there were no intentions of using the dogs or handlers for security work”, the office said in its investigation report. “However, because of the protest events, the dogs were deployed as a method of trying to keep the protesters under control.”
The sheriff’s department said there were seven handlers and dogs but that police could only identify two people. Frost Kennels, from Ohio, provided employees and dogs, but police said the company had not been cooperative in the investigation and that it was not a registered security company.
“Although lists of security employees have been provided, there is no way of confirming whether the list is accurate or if names have been purposely withheld,” Morton County Capt Jay Gruebele said in a statement.
Bob Frost, owner of the kennel that supplied dogs and staff, told the Guardian that he had been “beyond cooperative” and said his handlers were licensed through a security firm acting as a contractor for the pipeline.
“All the proper protocols … were already done,” he said, adding that it was a different group that had pepper spray. “I pulled my guys out the next day because we weren’t there to go to war with these protesters.”
The sheriff’s office said prosecutors were reviewing the case and the private guards could face misdemeanor charges. Spokespeople for the state’s attorney’s office did not respond to an inquiry and a spokeswoman for the pipeline, operated by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, declined to comment.
It was recently revealed that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has close ties to the pipeline company.
Iron Cloud said the conflict with the dogs was harrowing. “I was face to face with the security guards and the dogs,” she said, adding that at the time of the protest, construction workers were “bulldozing sacred ground”.