SHIPROCK — More than five years have passed since the last Navajo Nation chief of police was placed on paid leave.

Since then, the Navajo Nation Police Department has carried on without a chief, the highest rank in the department.

The department has about 365 officers to cover a 27,000-square-mile area, according to the department's website. That means there are 0.4 officers available for every 1,000 people, according to U.S. Department of Justice Reports.

Between all of the districts, the department responds to more than 289,000 calls each year, according to the department's website.

Each of the districts is commanded by a captain or a lieutenant who oversees criminal investigations, uniform patrol and support services. The commanders have been taking turns — and time away from their own districts — to fill in playing the role of chief.

In short, it has not been easy, and it is not getting any easier.

The tribe has no intention of filling the chief position soon. The captains have been filling in for several months at a time — sometimes close to a year at a time.

"We've been doing this for awhile," said Erny Zah, spokesman for the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President. "It's really become routine."

According to various media reports, the chief position has been vacant since April 2008. At the time, Jim Benally was the Navajo Nation police chief, according to Navajo Nation Police, he was placed on paid leave, various media reports said.

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The department gave no explanation as to why he was placed on leave.

Police department officials did not return calls for comment. It is not clear how long Benally was on leave, though his position was posted as vacant in November 2009. Also unknown is how long the department has been rotating captains and lieutenants.

What is ahead of the department, though, may not be manageable for a rotating cast of temporary chiefs.

The department's operational budget for next year is being trimmed, according to Navajo Nation Law and Order Committee member Russell Begaye, the Navajo Nation Council delegate from Shiprock.

Though he did not know how much the department had in its budget, Begaye said it was up for a 5.2 percent cut because of the federal government's decision to make cuts across the board.

Already, the department is on a tight budget.

Part of the reason that the chief position has not been filled is because of the salary, which is $63,564.80 per year, according to the job posting.

Compared to police chief positions with similar responsibilities, the salary is about half of what it should be, Zah said. And that deters many from applying in the first place.

Additionally, the Navajo Nation has changed some of its hiring practices, making the requirements more rigid. The new chief would need to have, at the very least, a bachelor's degree, which none of the captains or lieutenants currently have, Zah said.

In the job posting, the qualification requirements include a bachelor's degree in police science, law enforcement, criminal justice, public administration or a related field. A master's degree is preferred. It also requires at least six years of management experience in law enforcement, four of which must have been as a captain or higher rank. Eight years of experience is preferred, with six as a captain.

"The (district captains and lieutenants) have years of experience, but it's the educational experience they lack," Zah said.

The police department has received a wave of criticism in recent months, though it is not clear if recent complaints are directly related to the job vacancy.

Both the public and the tribe's law and order committee have been asking why the department has been struggling to respond to calls in a timely fashion and why it has been struggling to handle its caseload.

"(The job vacancy) has created a discord among the police force," Begaye said.

The law and order committee has received numerous complaints about the "lack of direction" in the department, he said. Begaye said he expects the issues will only worsen after the department whittles down its budget.

John Billison, executive director of the Navajo Nation Department of Public Safety, could not be reached for comment in recent weeks to offer insight on the issue. The police department is supervised by the Navajo Nation Department of Public Safety.

Shiprock police Capt. Ivan Tsosie, who is currently serving as the acting chief of the Navajo Nation police, also could not be reached for comment.

Tsosie has been in the position since last fall, according to Shiprock police. The captains and lieutenants will continue their rotation until the position is filled.

The money usually reserved for the police chief's salary has been going toward the salaries of other staff within the department. Because neither Billison nor Tsosie returned numerous calls for comment, it is not known if the captains and lieutenants are receiving extra pay while serving as acting chief. No other employees are allowed to offer comment, per the department's policy.

"It's creating uneasiness and uncertainty," Begaye said of the vacancy.

Jenny Kane can be reached at jkane@daily-times.com; 505-564-4636. Follow her on Twitter @Jenny_Kane