Navajo residents offer praise, criticism of local law enforcement

Steve Garrison The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Navajo residents who live throughout San Juan County expressed cautious optimism and had some light criticism regarding relations between local law enforcement and their people at a public forum held Thursday by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission.

Several longtime Navajo residents who spoke at the six-hour forum at the Farmington Civic Center said race relations in the community have improved significantly since the 1970s.

Kenneth Julg said he was born in Farmington to an alcoholic parent in the 1960s and has had many contacts with Farmington police as a result.

"I have lived in Farmington through some turbulent times that were painful," Julg said. "We have good and bad, with our law enforcement and with our people."

He said that whereas in the '60s and '70s, the town was mostly white, "today there are Native Americans and Navajos living all over Farmington, working all over Farmington."

Lester Begay told the commission that the Navajo Nation itself has many problems that need addressing.

"I feel that border towns are getting to the point of respecting all the people — black, Navajo, it doesn't matter who it is," he said. "Now it is getting to the point where the Navajo Nation needs to do the same. We need to clean our own backyard before we get on anyone else."

Begay said he still felt that holding the public forum was a good idea.

Some residents said they were targeted for traffic stops by law enforcement officers or that officers were unnecessarily aggressive toward them.

Sammy Ahkeah, a former Navajo police officer and a 2014 challenger for the San Juan County Commission District 1 seat, said New Mexico State Police officers have treated him like he is a potential threat during routine traffic stops.

"Sometimes, it is a nice day, and they don't realize it," he said. "They don't say, 'Good morning,' 'Good afternoon,' stuff like that. It is always an aggressive approach. I don't like that, because I am an older person."

Ahkeah also said it is wrong for law enforcement officers to file citations in Aztec Magistrate Court when the traffic stops are made near the reservation.

"People who get cited here should get sent to Farmington Magistrate Court, but they are not," he said. "They are cited in Aztec Magistrate Court, and that is an extra few miles we have to drive."

Commissioner Frank Bradley III, a retired Navajo police officer, said the commission has heard complaints in other communities about a lack of respect toward Navajos by officers.

Terry Clarke said he used to live on the streets of Farmington. He said homeless Navajos would be punished unfairly for jaywalking on Main Street.

He said one officer in particular, who he did not name at the forum, made a habit of stopping homeless Navajos without reason and searching them.

"I see racism," he said. "I don't think it has changed."

Bert Sandoval, however, expressed appreciation for city and county efforts to help street inebriates, an issue he said he has worked to address.

Several residents who spoke at the forum talked about grievances they had with Navajo police.

Bradley pointed out, after one woman said it took five hours for a Navajo police officer to respond to a call, that there are only 300 Navajo police officers deployed across seven districts in the Navajo Nation.

"I am not making excuses, but that is the reality of it," he said.

The commission previously had held similar forums in Torreon, Albuquerque, Gallup, and Cortez, Colo.

A forum scheduled to take place in Flagstaff, Ariz., on Jan. 8 was postponed indefinitely, according to the commission's website.

Three of five commissioners — Bradley, Valerie Kelly and Justice Tsosie — attended the forum in Farmington. Lauren Bernally, a policy analyst for the commission, also attended the event.

Farmington police Chief Steve Hebbe and several other Farmington law enforcement officials were present. In the afternoon, San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen joined those in attendance, as did two officers from New Mexico State Police.

Both Hebbe and Christesen addressed the commission at the forum.

Hebbe said he appreciated hearing comments from the Navajo community and emphasized that he wishes to work closer with the Navajo Nation and its police department.

Christesen said his deputies respond "about 1,000 times a year" to emergency calls on the reservation.

"When people are in need, we come," he said.

He said Navajo police officers work hard and do a fine job, but they are overwhelmed by the number of calls on the reservation.

"The problem is not in Shiprock, but in Window Rock," he said. "The problem is the leadership."

He said he would be willing to work with the Navajo Nation to help address alcohol issues in the region.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and Follow him on Twitter @SteveGarrisonDT on Twitter.