FARMINGTON — Navajo Police, immediately following the June 25 shooting death of police Sgt. Darrell Curley in a remote area of the Navajo Nation, asked deputies from surrounding counties for help.
Counties obliged, sending officers onto the Nation to assist with the investigation and arrest of the Kaibeto, Ariz., suspect. But the request came with the mutual understanding that most county deputies don't have the authority to enforce tribal or state or federal laws, or to make arrests on reservation land.
That disparity is changing, one county at a time, as sheriff's offices commit to cross-commission their officers.
Cross-commission certification allows deputies to enter reservation lands and arrest both native and non-native individuals in violation of tribal, local and state criminal and traffic laws. It's a 180-degree change from past practices that drew strict jurisdictional boundaries and offered safe havens for tribal members running from the law.
One of the six counties in three states encompassing the contiguous 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation has signed an agreement with the tribe to cross-commission law enforcement officers.
New Mexico's McKinley County in 2007 did so, allowing deputies to enforce laws and arrest people on reservation land.
The agreement provides for "the orderly, efficient and effective enforcement of the criminal and traffic laws of the Navajo Nation and the state ... to prevent each jurisdiction from becoming a sanctuary for the violators of the laws of the other, to prevent inter-jurisdictional flight and to foster greater respect for the laws of each jurisdiction."
The tribe is seeking similar agreements with the remaining five counties, plus three additional New Mexico counties that include outlier Navajo communities: Bernalillo, Socorro and Cibola counties.
Sheriffs of those eight counties have offered varying degrees of support for the far-reaching initiative.
"Ultimately, this benefits people in need," said Edmund Yazzie, chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council's Law and Order Committee. "Cross-commissioning is helping. There's a faster response rate from law enforcement, but it only works if all the departments work together."
The Nation desperately needs assistance from counties, Yazzie said.
The Navajo Police Department has 365 commissioned officers who respond to about 289,000 service calls per year. They make about 39,000 arrests per year.
Three cross-commissioning options are available to county deputies, said Yazzie, a 14-year law enforcement veteran who worked for the Ramah police and the McKinley County Sheriff's Office.
STATE OF THE COUNTIES
FARMINGTON — Nine counties in three states encompassing Navajo land are considering agreements with the tribe to allow police officers on both sides to enforce laws. The agreements are expected to eliminate sanctuaries from the law and increase arrests and convictions.
San Juan County, N.M., is the only county that will not cross-commission deputies with the tribe, though Sheriff Ken Christesen has signaled a willingness to certify his deputies with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to enforce federal laws.
One county already has a cross-commissioning agreement in place, two have signed mutual aid agreements and the five remaining counties are considering their options.
McKinley County signed an agreement in 2007. Arizona's Apache County and New Mexico's Socorro County - home of the outlier Navajo community of Alamo - have entered into mutual aid agreements, which allow deputies limited authority to act as first responders.
San Juan County, Utah; Arizona's Apache, Navajo and Coconino counties and New Mexico's San Juan, Cibola and Bernalillo counties have yet to put signatures to paper. Cibola and Bernalillo counties encompass the outlier Navajo communities of Ramah and To'hajiilee, respectively. Outlier communities are not part of the 27,000-square-mile contiguous Navajo reservation, which stretches through portions of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Sheriffs of all the counties that include Navajo land are weighing liability issues and resources against what some are calling a moral obligation to protect all people.
San Juan County, Utah
Deputies in this county in southeast Utah are dedicated to protecting all people, said Sheriff Rick Eldredge of San Juan County, Utah.
The 8,400-square-mile county includes about 2,000 square miles of Navajo land. The Ute Mountain Ute tribe occupies an additional 9 square miles.
The biggest obstacle in law enforcement on the reservation is liability, Eldredge said. "If we go onto the reservation, our insurance company will not cover it," he said. "If we go on the reservation and arrest a Native American, we are trespassing."
Without the agreement, deputies' authority is limited. If they arrest a native individual on reservation land, they have to transport that person to Shiprock or Kayenta, Ariz., to be booked. The agreement would allow deputies to book individuals in county facilities, cutting travel costs and time deputies spend away from their home turf.
Eldredge, who oversees 10 field deputies and two detectives, is in the final stages of securing a cross-commissioning agreement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to work with the Ute tribe. He also is seeking agreements with the BIA for Navajo land and the separate agreement with the Navajo tribe.
"I feel an obligation to the residents of the county on the Navajo Nation," Eldredge said. "We're helping out with manpower issues. Navajo police also want to be able to arrest non-natives. Whoever's jurisdiction it is ought to be able to arrest people, wherever they are."
Navajo County, Ariz.
"I don't see any cons at all," Navajo County, Ariz. Sheriff K.C. Clark said of cross-commissioning. "It's pro, pro, pro."
Navajo County is just less than 10,000 square miles. About 60 percent of that is on tribal land, split among Navajo, Hopi and Apache tribes. The biggest reservation by far is Navajo. In anticipation of cross-commissioning his force, Clark already is sending deputies to patrol on the Nation. One of his 35 deputies is stationed full-time on the reservation.
"They're getting to know people, culture, the area," he said. "We want to be able to assist whenever, wherever we're asked."
The county's attorney is reviewing the an agreement with the tribe, Clark said.
"I wish it was yesterday," he said of the agreement. "I see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Clark hopes the agreement is finalized this fall. He's also considering BIA agreements to enforce federal laws on all three reservations in his jurisdiction.
"It's long overdue," he said.
The Navajo Nation often asks the county for assistance with security during special events like high school dances, sporting events or rodeos. Allowing deputies to also make arrests and enforce laws is just taking the relationship one step further.
"This gives the officers safety, security to do their jobs wherever they are," Clark said. "There's no difference whether it's on Navajo land or down in Showlow, Ariz. We're there to help."
Apache County, Ariz.
All 39 deputies in Apache County, Ariz., are certified to work on the Navajo Nation under a mutual aid agreement, Sheriff Joseph Dedman Jr. said.
The 11,000-square-mile county includes land on four different American Indian reservations: Apache, Hopi, Zuni and Navajo. Approximately half of the county is on the Navajo Nation, Dedman said.
"We're surrounded by tribes," he said. "We're right in the middle of it, so as far as law enforcement is concerned, we need that so we can go in and help out." Nine deputies are assigned to areas from Sanders, Ariz., north through the Navajo Nation to the Utah state line. They are stationed in Teec Nos Pos, Chinle, Cove, Ganado and Window Rock.
These officers are not commissioned to make arrests for federal crimes. Their authority to enforce state and tribal laws also is limited until the county enters into the broader cross-commissioning agreement that gives deputies full purview on reservation land.
"Something like this has to be in place, if you (police) cross-jurisdiction," Dedman said. "It works out as far as law enforcement is concerned. Law enforcement is one purpose: to protect life and property. If we can work together on issues like this, that's good partnership."
Coconino County, Ariz.
Multiple calls to Coconino County, Ariz., Sheriff Bill Pribil were not returned.
When counties cross-commission their officers with the tribe, the agreement allows deputies to arrest individuals on the reservation and book them into Navajo or county jails.
On the flip side, the agreement also calls for Navajo officers to train under state and county standards so they can arrest non-native individuals on reservation land — jurisdiction they do not have.
Arizona's Apache County, located just west of the state line, and New Mexico's Socorro County — home of the outlier Navajo community of Alamo — have entered into mutual aid agreements. A mutual aid agreement welcomes all emergency responders onto the reservation, and vice-versa with Navajo officers when aid is needed elsewhere, Yazzie said.
"Mutual aid is giving lesser authority to each department," Yazzie said. "Mutual aid basically means they can act as first responder."
A third option is to cross-commission with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This certification allows deputies to enter the reservation to enforce federal laws only.
Federal crimes are more severe felonies, including sexual assault, murder and armed robbery. Convictions of federal crimes usually mean a year or more in prison, while tribal or state crimes on reservation land are those punishable by less than a year in prison, Yazzie said.
The cross-commissioning process is simple, Yazzie said. After sheriff's departments and the Navajo Division of Public Safety agree on specifics, the document will go before the county's commissioners or supervisors, then on to the state governor before finally being signed by the president of the Navajo Nation.
Deputies then complete three days of training about tribal laws, and Navajo police officers complete similar training with counties.
The result is a team of law enforcement officers that can cover all situations and protect all people, said Yazzie, who led a work session July 14 with sheriffs of all neighboring counties.
"Officers, when they put the uniform on, when they take the oath, they promise to protect all people," he said. "Does cross-commissioning work? I've seen it work. But it only works if the sheriff and the Navajo Nation work together."
The decision to cross-commission deputies, which ultimately lies with sheriff's offices, is not a simple one. Sheriffs must consider available resources, safety of their deputies and legal liability issues that go hand-in-hand with enforcing laws.
Yet most sheriffs have voiced support for the initiative, with the exception of San Juan County, N.M. That could mean residents of the Nation within local county borders may be the only people not protected by county officers in state or tribal cases.
San Juan County contains 5,500 square miles. About 62 percent of that land — or 3,500-square-miles — is on the Navajo Nation.
Yet Sheriff Ken Christesen is determined to keep his 106 deputies off the reservation. None of those deputies is cross-commissioned to make arrests on the Nation.
"Unequivocally, cross-commissioning is not the answer," Christesen said, emphasizing that deputies always will respond in an emergency and when invited onto the reservation to assist Navajo officers. "If there is an emergency, we have always responded. We have always been there and we will continue to be there."
The catch is that deputies, even when their help is requested, do not have authority to make arrests or pursue charges against individuals when the crime is committed on reservation land. A deputy only can secure a scene or protect life or property, Christesen said. Beyond that, a deputy must wait for a Navajo Police officer to arrive.
The exception is when a non-Navajo individual has committed a crime on the Nation, Christensen said.
"We do have jurisdiction over non-natives on the reservation," he said. "Jurisdiction there has to do with whether you're native or non-native."
Deputies, however, do not have jurisdiction to bring charges against a native individual who commits a crime against a non-native on reservation land.
Although he will not allow cross-commissioning with the Navajo Nation for his deputies during the remaining three years of his term, Christesen is interested in an agreement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The difference, he said, is liability for his deputies and a better chance at conviction for cases involving federal laws.
If a deputy brings tribal charges against an individual cited on reservation land, that deputy is pulled from duty to appear in court in Shiprock or Crownpoint, Christesen said. That means fewer deputies patrolling the county and hefty gas bills when someone makes the 200-mile round-trip journey to Crownpoint.
Christesen also cited communication issues between county and tribal law enforcement and dispatch errors that sometimes result in hours-long waits for tribal officers to arrive. He also worries about liability and safety of his officers once they cross the reservation line.
But Christesen's biggest hesitation is that commissioning deputies to work on the Nation takes them away from off-reservation communities.
"We barely have enough resources to patrol off the reservation," he said. "I have no interest in cross-commissioning with the tribe."
The San Juan County Sheriff's Office operates on a $12.6 million annual budget, which comes from the county's general fund, Chief Financial Officer Marcella Brashear said. That budget does not include various grant monies the department gets for special operations or equipment.
The fund comes from gross receipt taxes, property taxes and revenue from the oil and gas industries. Residents of the Nation do not pay property tax because they do not own land.
"Only 7 percent of the land in the county is privately owned," Christesen said. "The property tax is the biggest contributor to law enforcement. I wouldn't go to Colorado, Arizona, Utah or Texas with my deputies. It wouldn't be fair. It wouldn't be fair to go to the reservation, either."
The annual budget funds salaries and benefits for 129 employees, Brashear said. The starting salary for a deputy is $43,000, with an annual benefit package of nearly $25,000, for a total average cost per deputy of $68,000.
The sheriff's salary, set by state statute, is $68,000, Brashear said. The benefit package is an additional $13,000.
The county pays a total of $10.5 million per year in salaries and benefits to the Sheriff's Office.
Christesen's decision has drawn criticism from the reservation communities in the county.
"Sheriffs who have come and gone have simply promised to assist the Navajo people with law enforcement while campaigning for their offices and resulting in nothing after they get elected," said Ervin Chavez, who spent 16 years on the County Commission representing the southeastern portion of the county, including the checkerboard area south of Bloomfield.
"One thing that these sheriffs forget is that the bigger land base of San Juan County lies outside the valley of Bloomfield, Aztec, Farmington, Kirtland and Fruitland and that their votes come from all of San Juan County, including the Navajo Nation portion," Chavez said.
"The larger population may live in these regions, but cities' police officers cover towns and state police cover the highways, leaving county deputies to cover the rural communities."
Christesen, though immovable in his decision not to sign an agreement to tackle tribal crimes, agrees the reservation communities need better policing. That can be solved through a federal agreement, he said.
"There needs to be something done," he said. "People who live on the reservation deserve better law enforcement."
McKinley County, located just south of San Juan County and bordering the Arizona state line, was the first of nine counties encompassing parts of the Navajo Nation to cross-commission its deputies.
Deputies began training after the county signed the agreement with the Navajo tribe in 2007, under former sheriff Frank Gonzales.
That agreement came into play in recent years when county and state officers helped Navajo police crack down on drug and gang activity in Thoreau, a small reservation community that attracts criminals from the I-40 and New Mexico 371 corridors who seek refuge on the reservation.
Approximately 80 percent of the 5,280-square-mile county is American Indian land, Sheriff Felix Begay said. Most of the 26 deputies are cross-commissioned to work on the Navajo Nation.
Begay, a Navajo in his fourth term as sheriff, worked on that agreement since 1989.
The Sheriff's Office is seeking cross-commissioning with the Bureau of Indian Affairs next, Begay said. That will allow deputies to enforce federal laws on both the Navajo and Zuni reservation land within the county, which also includes the Navajo community of Ramah.
Three deputies are training under the Bureau of Indian Affairs standards, Begay said.
Undersheriff Andre Leonard, who helped implement the Navajo agreement, said the Sheriff's Office looks less at liability and resources and more at protecting county residents.
"The Navajo Nation chronically has a shortage of officers, so they're always looking for someone who can help enforce," he said. "They want the heartburn, the problem, to go away. They're very happy to see us respond."
Cross-commissioning doesn't mean county deputies will be handing out traffic tickets or arresting individuals for misdemeanor crimes, Leonard said.
Deputies usually respond only when summoned, he said. They assist when someone flags them down or when Navajo dispatch authorities in Crownpoint or Window Rock, Ariz., specifically ask for help.
"When they make that call, they will preface it with the fact that they don't have units available," Leonard said. "We try to stay away from anything other than crimes in progress where property or lives are in danger. We don't do routine burglaries ... no other things on the basic health, safety or welfare of the community."
Liability still is an issue, however, Leonard said. That's why the office is seeking certification with the federal government, which would ease the legal issue, freeing deputies to concentrate on law enforcement.
But the bottom line for McKinley County, Leonard said, is that the Sheriff's Office has vowed to protect all citizens, regardless of where they live.
And regardless of whether those cases ultimately are prosecuted.
"We believe all people have equal protection under the law," he said. "It can be complex sometimes. Cases can be dismissed because of jurisdiction, but we don't care what the eventual outcome is. We are happy that drunk drivers are removed from the road, that citizens are safe.
"Somebody has to be compelled to help people in need," he said. "If you have a love for people, you're going to want to do something. We've taken to doing it because there's no one else doing it. Sometimes you just have to do the right thing."