Law enforcement agencies from the state, San Juan County and Navajo Nation are pledging more consistent patrol and stricter enforcement of traffic laws along the U.S. 550 corridor.
The rural four-lane highway was the site of six alcohol-related deaths during a recent six-week period, ending with three fatalities in two unrelated incidents Jan. 1.
It's a similar story to those told about U.S. 491 and New Mexico 371, the two other north-south thoroughfares that connect the cities in northern San Juan County with the I-40 corridor and the rest of the state. All three highways, like fingers stretching from U.S. 64 southward, are plagued with safety issues, including drunken driving, speeding and pedestrian crossings.
And all three highways are something of a jurisdictional nightmare for law enforcement officers. The 87 miles that make up U.S. 550 between Bloomfield and Cuba, for example, fall within the jurisdictions of at least six different law enforcement agencies, John Billison, executive director for the Navajo Division of Public Safety, told a group of about 75 concerned citizens Sunday during a meeting in Nageezi.
Agencies charged with patrolling chunks of 550 include the San Juan and Rio Arriba county sheriff's offices, the state police, the Navajo Nation and Jicarilla Apache police, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Billison said.
The Navajo Nation has jurisdiction on only about 10 of those miles, he said. "And that's not continuous."
Billison was describing the checkerboard area, named for the blocks of land under varying jurisdictions and clustered together in the area south of Bloomfield to beyond the Rio Arriba County line.
The recent deaths on 550 Ð the latest in a legacy of roadway fatalities along this strip of pavement Ð prompted community outrage from the Nageezi, Huerfano and Counselor chapters of the Navajo Nation, communities colored brown on a map of jurisdictional boundaries Billison provided.
During a Jan. 8 meeting, the three chapters passed a handful of resolutions calling for better law enforcement presence, not just on the highway, but in the Navajo communities that dot the landscape on both sides of the road.
"The continued feeling is that there is no patrol from the state or the county in this area," Nageezi Chapter President Ervin Chavez said during a Jan. 5 interview, just days after the last fatality on 550. "A string of accidents out there should alert law enforcement to the need."
The resolutions seek answers to a "continued stalemate over jurisdiction" and a lack of police response to areas in the Eastern Navajo Agency. The area falls between two Navajo police stations, Shiprock and Crownpoint, yet neither station consistently sends officers to the 550 corridor, despite a substation opening 18 months ago in Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle.
"The Navajo Nation is paying for lights and water, but there is no one stationed there permanently," Chavez said of the substation, which was built with $500,000 of county funds under an agreement that called for the Nation to staff the building with officers, increasing law enforcement presence in the isolated area and cutting down on response time.
"I'm very disappointed with what is not happening out there," Chavez said.
The resolutions also ask for state assistance in negotiating jurisdictional issues and cross-agency sharing of criminal records to help track down repeat offenders.
Finally, the resolutions seek stricter laws in regards to issuing liquor permits to establishments that haven't proved they would refuse sales to walk-in or intoxicated clients.
"The laws need to be changed," Chavez said. "Something needs to be done. Innocent people can't be paying the price."
In response to those resolutions, representatives of the county, state and Navajo law enforcement agencies presented Sunday a list of solutions to the long-standing problems.
"We need results," Billison said. "We need to increase arrests and decrease fatalities. É We need to fashion new agreements with the state and the counties."
Billison proposed several strategies to help curb the roadway violence. Among those were establishing better law enforcement presence, collaborate efforts among agencies and staffing the substation.
The ultimate goals, Billison said, are to ensure a timely response to emergency calls, build long-term partnerships with county and state police and "reduce the alcohol-related fatalities on 550."
Those statements were something on which all parties could agree.
San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen, who since the Jan. 1 deaths already has pledged more officer presence along the road, said those increased patrols yielded 25 stops during the last week, many of people driving on suspended licenses because of previous DUI charges.
Further, Christesen said his deputies already respond to 1,000 emergency calls per year on the Navajo Nation. Those calls are in emergency situations, or when a deputy's immediate presence can prevent loss of life or property.
But Christesen will not cross-commission his deputies so they have jurisdiction on the reservation under tribal laws, he said. He is interested, however, in cross-commission training that would allow his deputies to enforce federal laws and prosecute crimes in federal court.
Even cross-commissioning of deputies may fall short of expectations because Navajo laws lack teeth, Navajo President Ben Shelly said.
"If a man is found driving drunk, what is the fine for that? Nothing," he said. "There is nothing in Navajo Nation Code to address that. If a man is found dealing drugs, what is the fine for that? $500 maximum, and no jail time. There is no teeth in any of those laws."
Shelly, who said crime on the Nation is "only going to get worse" unless lawmakers address the relaxed code, called on state and tribal officials to "get our heads together and make it work."
"You want a solution," he said to the Nageezi community. "Let's do it now."
Increased highway patrol doesn't have to wait for laws or codes to change, Christesen said.
"We can crank up law enforcement right now," he said. "There's no reason we can't enforce the laws on the highway. One death is too many; six is ridiculous in that short of a time period."