Recent Navajo Police Officer Deaths Expose Increased Violence

May 19, 2015
Laurel Morales
Navajo Nation Police Sergeant Ronald Yazzie says his officers are spread thin. He has eight officers on at any given time covering the Tuba City district, which is 420 square miles.

The Navajo Nation banned alcohol from its reservation more than a century ago. But that hasn’t stopped people from drinking and in more recent years, doing drugs.

The lack of jobs makes bootlegging and dealing meth, marijuana and cocaine all the more appealing. More substance abuse has led to a surge in violent crimes. And the tribe’s police officers say they’re overwhelmed.

In March, a domestic violence call in the tiny Navajo community of Red Valley on the Arizona-New Mexico border escalated to a manhunt and shootout. One officer was killed and two others injured. This was the second officer shooting in recent months — a shock to the tribal community.

Former Navajo President Ben Shelly spoke at Officer Alex Yazzie’s funeral.

“When I was growing up I remember a Navajo hungry or thirsty another Navajo will pick him up and feed him give him water,” Shelly said. “What’s today’s world? You get beat up or you get killed. These are Navajos I’m talking about. Society is changing.”

Laurel Morales
Navajo Officer Donald Seimy says he approaches every call as if it were dangerous. But Johnny Secody needed medical attention.

The outgoing president called for more officers. Only 30 officers patrol 240,000 people at any given time. The national average per capita is three times that.

The incoming president, Russell Begaye, said the tribe needs something else as well:  paved roads, so officers can respond to calls more quickly.

Tuba City Sergeant Ronald Yazzie is no relation to the officer who was killed. He said both more officers and better roads would help.

“We can’t do anything if we can’t get there,” Yazzie said. “Not knowing that you have the capability of helping but you can’t get there that is frustrating it does put that stress on you.”

And while the tribe is building bigger jails, they’re dealing with tribal laws that don’t allow them to hold perpetrators for long. The FBI investigates the most violent crimes, but the office is several hours away.

Laurel Morales
Johnny Secody wants to know how soon is the first of the month. That's when he gets his government assistance check and that's when he can buy more alcohol from the bootlegger.

It all makes for compelling reality TV.

A few years ago the National Geographic channel rode along with the Navajo police.The producers chronicled the arrests of dangerous ex-convicts, drug dealers and gangs.

I recently did my own ride along with Tuba City Officer Donald Seimy.

“If anything happens to me and I’m the only one there, you can use this radio,” Seimy told me.

Seimy, who has been an officer for 19 years, said he almost always rides alone. But these days — with the increased dangers — he now waits for backup if it’s a domestic violence call.

“Every day there’s somebody drinking, somebody intoxicated, somebody beating their family member because of their drinking,” Seimy said. “That’s when it becomes dangerous for us.”

Laurel Morales
Navajo Nation police Officer Donald Seimy says making alcohol illegal on the reservation doesn't stop people from bootlegging and selling drugs.

On today’s ride, we didn’t encounter danger, but a more common scene of despair. We stop at Johnny Secody’s home, which sits at the end of a long dirt road. As Seimy approaches the small house, empty malt liquor bottles are piled outside and the stench of urine is overwhelming. The elder complains of severe leg pain. He has no phone so Seimy radioed for an ambulance.

“Grandpa here, he’s also an alcoholic,” Seimy said. “He’s asking me when payday is and payday meaning first of the month payday when a lot of people get paid from the government.”

Seimy said the beginning of each month is the busiest and most dangerous time for the Navajo police. That’s when many people get their government-assistance checks and visit a bootlegger or a drug dealer. Then dispatch is inundated with domestic violence calls. And the few Navajo officers on duty call for backup.