FARMINGTON — Navajo police officers patrol more than 17 million acres, watch over a population of 180,000 and have to balance modern law enforcement with ancient customs.
To the 330 men and women in uniform, that's daily life on America's largest Indian reservation.
But to a team of Los Angeles-based writers and producers, it sounded like a television show in the making.
"Navajo Cops" premieres at 8 p.m. local time Monday on the National Geographic Channel. It's a joint effort between the Navajo Division of Public Safety and Flight 33 Productions.
"I think one of the most eye-opening things for us was that, if you live in a big city, you're used to police officers having partners, working in pairs," said Sam Dolan, producer, director and one of the writers for the show. "On Navajo, they're out there by themselves. There could be 50 miles in between officers. They make huge sacrifices, and it's a very dangerous job."
The days are relentless, Dolan said. The Navajo police force, chronically understaffed and overworked, faces giant obstacles in terms of geography and manpower.
After a pilot episode featuring the Navajo officers aired in May, Flight 33 Productions got the green light to produce six more episodes. Crews filmed officers at work in some of the bigger communities on the reservation, including Shiprock and Crownpoint in the New Mexico portion, and Window Rock, Kayenta, Chinle and Tuba City, Ariz., Dolan said. Filming took place during the summer and early autumn.
"We went pretty much everywhere on the Navajo Nation," he said. "We did work in most of the police districts."
The film crew rode with about 30 officers, Dolan said, but the show focuses on half a dozen men and women the crew followed closely. Those officers allowed cameras into their personal lives, as well.
Although the episodes follow police action on the reservation, including murder, suicide, rape, domestic violence, drugs, gangs and prostitution, Dolan hopes the personal stories also touch viewers.
"These officers go to work every day to preserve their traditions, their cultures," he said. "They know the people they are policing, they know who they are interacting with. Even though the reservation is very busy for a cop, it has a small-town feel.
The filming crew had "an adventure working with the cops," Dolan said. "I'm glad the television audience will see firsthand the sacrifice and the intense work they do."
The Navajo Film Office also had those goals in mind when it partnered with Flight 33 Productions for the show, said Lorie Lee, former media production specialist for the film office. Lee, who left her post in February, worked with the filming crew during the two years it was scouting for locations and producing the show.
The film office selected Flight 33 Productions over four other companies vying for a chance to shoot a reality show featuring Navajo police officers.
"The main emphasis was that they wanted to shadow and have the officers be documented and have their stories told," Lee said of the production company. "The officers wanted to know that their stories would be handled from their point of view."
The film office also wanted the production to show some of the law enforcement issues on the reservation, Lee said.
"This is an insight into Native American country, the terrain, the culture, the language," she said of the show. "This is the positive and negative aspects and the social ills that everyone knows exist, but that they are not quite able to understand until they see it."
Navajo officers also deal with unique challenges, such as lack of street signs, inconsistent backup and areas where their radios don't have signals, Lee said. Another interesting part of the Navajo force is that more women than men work as officers, she said.
"This is the story of the high crimes, the social ills on the reservation," she said. "I think the show will speak for itself in terms of the commitment we have to protect our way of life, but fight for a modern means of livelihood. These cops are dedicated, no matter what, to protecting the homeland."
During the filming, officers got more comfortable with the film crew and began sharing their personal and family lives, Dolan said.
"Our show has heart," he said. "We spend a lot of time with the officers, see their home lives, see how they're affected by what's happening in their communities."
In some respects, "Navajo Cops" is similar to other crime or law enforcement shows, Dolan said. But in other ways, the show is very different.
For example, some of the officers featured in the show perform traditional morning ceremonies and bless themselves with herbs before heading to work, Dolan said. Others use the Navajo language prominently in their daily routines.
In those respects, this show is nothing like "Cops," which premiered in 1989 and is the longest-running show on Fox.
"A lot of those kinds of law enforcement shows can be very confrontational," Dolan said. "It's different on Navajo. The officers are combating very serious issues, but at the same time they are very compassionate."
"Navajo Cops" premieres Monday, and a fresh episode will play at 8 p.m. local time on Mondays for the following five weeks.
If the six episodes do well, producers hope to offer more seasons of the show, Dolan said.
Flight 33 Productions also films "Rocket City Rednecks" for the National Geographic channel, and it has worked on military and historical documentaries for the History Channel.
But Dolan has a soft spot for the Navajo after filming them.
"In my opinion, the men and women of the Navajo PD are nothing short of heroes," he said.