Navajo Justice Officials: Funding Shortages Worsen Public Safety Crisis

Covering an area of about 27,000 square miles, the Navajo Nation is the largest Native American territory in the US, yet its legal infrastructure is severely understaffed and underfunded, according to senior tribal law enforcement officials, speaking on the “Native America Calling” podcast.

Covering an area of about 27,000 square miles, the Navajo Nation is the largest Native American territory in the US, spanning Arizona, Colorado and Utah. Yet its legal infrastructure is severely understaffed and underfunded.

In an exploration of tribal justice issues, leading Navajo justice officials said on the podcast Native America Calling that the lack of sufficient resources for law enforcement infrastructure was intensifying the “public safety crisis” facing Navajo people.

With less than 200 police officers to cover a territory bigger than many states, Navajo Police Chief Phillip Francisco said that despite some increases in funding, more than twice that number was needed to provide a suitable amount of protection.

“We’re trying to rebuild and hire more officers,” said Francisco. “We’ve established our own police academy, (and) we’re the only Indian law enforcement agency that has that.”

But he said the sheer distance between police districts, combined with staff shortages, meant that it could take up to an hour and a half to respond to some calls.

“When we get there a lot of the evidence is gone, or the suspects are gone, so we have to do a lot of follow ups.”

Data consistently show that tribal nations suffer among the nation’s highest crime rates. According to FBI statistics, the Navajo Nation has a violent crime rate higher than most major US cities.

Francisco said the tribal police communication infrastructure is a major issue as well.

“We don’t get 911 data, so we can’t locate where people are calling from,” he said “Sometimes people call but they can’t get through our dispatch center, so crime is probably underreported because people can’t get through to the police department.”

Because the Navajo Nation has so few officers, sometimes there are only two officers on shift at a time.

“If two officers are on a domestic violence call, you don’t have anyone else, so we have to wait until we have someone else to respond (to other calls coming in),” said Francisco.

Ethel Branch, Attorney General of the Navajo Nation, said 40 percent of Navajo territory is in a “cell dead zone.”

“That makes it difficult for people to call for help when they need it,” he said. “60 percent is without two-way radio coverage, which is how officers communicate and respond.”

Describing the direness of the situation, Branch said, “Our homicide rates, which I find very alarming, are consistently meeting or exceeding high national homicide rates.”

Branch thinks that Congress needs to step up and ensure that Indian country citizens are getting the resources they deserve.

“Native Americans serve at the highest per capita rates in the military,” he said. “We ensure American families are kept safe, and we expect our families to be kept safe, even if we choose to live within our Indian nations.”

Branch went on to say that she thinks the Navajo Nation needs direct funding from the federal government, instead of funneling dollars through the states.

Gertrude Lee, chief prosecutor of the Navajo Nation, agreed that the Navajo Nation needs more resources, but says things have gotten better during her time there.

“We have enormous caseloads, but I’ve seen much improvement from what I walked into,” she said.”We’re doing the best to work with the resources we have available.”

Lee said that when she started, five of the nine district offices didn’t have prosecutors in them. She had seven prosecutors on her staff, but now there are 14, and a prosecutor in every office. Lee said that in 2017, her staff went to a combined 3,100 more hearings than the previous year.

Lee also noted that the office of the prosecutor received 3,000 more reports from police districts in 2017 than 2016.

“It’s testament to the Navajo police and the amazing work they have done since Francisco came on,” she said. “Having key leadership positions filled and directing resources to the type of crimes that need to be addressed has a huge impact.”

The police leaders said that despite signs improvement, the Navajo Nation is still needs more resources allocated from the Federal government.

“Federal funds haven’t been revised in 15 to 20 years, so we’re really trying to plead our case to Congress and Washington,” said Francisco. “We are critically understaffed for the area and demographics we need to police.”

See also: Justice Returns to the Navajo Nation

Dane Stallone is a TCR news intern. He welcomes readers’ comments.