Navajo President Calls For More Native Officers In Border Towns

May 16, 2016
Courtesy of Floranda Dempsey
Loreal Tsingine was shot five times and killed by Winslow Officer Austin Shipley on March 27.
Courtesy of Floranda Dempsey
Hundreds of Native Americans are outraged over the shooting death of Loreal Tsingine. Many have called for border town chiefs of police to scrutinize their hiring practices.

Department of Public Safety authorities said on March 27, Winslow police officer Austin Shipley responded to a report of shoplifting at a local convenience store. When Shipley tried to arrest Loreal Tsingine, she threatened him with scissors, police said. Shipley then fired five shots at Tsingine, killing her.

“She didn’t deserve to be shot down five times,” said Floranda Dempsey, Tsingine’s aunt. “I mean who was he to be the judge, the juror and executioner?”

Arizona DPS is still investigating the shooting. But the Associated Press reports that documents they obtained show two officers who trained Shipley told the Winslow Police Department that he shouldn’t be kept on the force. He was too quick to go for his gun, ignored orders and falsified reports.

“If there’s somebody that has questionable background don’t put them on the force for God sake you know,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said.

Begaye said there are bigger problems. Namely, too many non-native police officers in the towns bordering the Navajo Nation.

“They need to make sure that we have people on those forces that do not discriminate against my people, the Navajos,” Begaye said.

The tribe has asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate racist police practices in Winslow. Federal officials have said they cannot look into it until the state investigation is complete. That report is due by the end of May.

Tsingine’s family wants justice for Loreal. The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and the tribe’s attorneys are looking into a lawsuit. The tribe is also asking questions about who polices them, and how.

The Winslow Police Department has five Native American officers out of 22. Just east of Winslow is Holbrook, another Navajo border town. There are zero Native American officers there. And in Flagstaff, there is one Native American officer out of 112. Police Chief Kevin Treadway says for the last three years he’s invested heavily in recruiting Native Americans.

“I feel very strongly our agency needs to look like the community that we serve,” Treadway said.

Flagstaff Police Sgt. Matt Wright, who is in charge of recruiting officers, has gone to job fairs on the reservation, placed ads in the Navajo Times and posted jobs with Native American networks.

But, according to interviews with a number of police chiefs, the applicants they see often have drug or domestic abuse records or don’t pass the rigorous tests.

“I’ve had plenty of Native Americans in here but a lot of them just don’t make it past the background check,” said Holbrook Police Chief Mark Jackson.

The lack of Native American officers leads to another problem. As Navajo President Begaye put it, the need for a force that doesn’t discriminate.

In Flagstaff in 2014, 45 percent of arrests made were Native American offenders. Census data show only 12 percent of Flagstaff’s population is Native American. Keep in mind the census doesn’t include many Native American visitors and the homeless.

But other border towns, where data is available, show the same trend-- more Native Americans arrested than other groups. Treadway said those aren’t all unique arrests. Many are repeat offenders. All the more reason to stress consistency and fairness among officers.

“So I think in any agency the culture of that department is incredibly important,” Treadway said.

Flagstaff PD has policies in place prohibiting racial profiling. Also, for the last two years all officers have worn body cameras. And footage called into question and complaints are investigated and vetted through the chain of command.

“And so the question is: How do you develop a culture that is absolutely resistant and intolerant of racial profiling?” Treadway said.

Holbrook Police Chief Mark Jackson questions whether it is even possible.

“Young officers who come out of the academy, they’re high strung,” Jackson said. “Academy teaches you everybody’s out to kill you and that’s the way you’re trained.”

So Northern Arizona University Ethnic Studies Professor Frederick Gooding Jr. said it’s important for officers to be a part of their community and to get to know all ethnic and racial groups. Gooding said every officer has a set of experiences or narratives he carries with him when confronting a situation.

“‘There’s a drunk Native American coming to the restaurant is he going to pay?’” Gooding said. “‘There’s the angry black man. What’s he going to do? There’s that Latino Cholo. Is he a gangbanger?’ These narratives we’ve seen hatched over and over again often trigger these responses: I’m not going to give you as much time to negotiate. I’m not interested in hearing your story. Whereas, ‘I see another white male, he looks like my uncle. He kind of looks like me. Lets calm down and figure something out.’”

Gooding said we must have more consistency recognizing our humanity regardless of the color it comes in.

MAP: Native American Cops In Navajo Nation Border Towns