New Navajo police chief discusses priorities

Steve Garrison

FARMINGTON — The new Navajo Nation chief of police said in an interview Friday afternoon he will work while in office to establish a tribal Amber Alert system and to improve police response times on the reservation.

Navajo Nation Police Chief Phillip Francisco.

Phillip Francisco said he would also like to establish memorandums of understanding with communities throughout the Four Corners region, including the Farmington Police Department and San Juan County Sheriff's Office.

Farmington police Chief Steve Hebbe has said such a memorandum, which would allow cross-jurisdictional arrests under certain circumstances, would help strengthen the relationship between tribal and local law enforcement agencies. Hebbe said Friday it was an issue he would like to discuss further with Francisco.

However, Francisco, 40, said there was more he will need to learn once he takes over as chief on Aug. 22. He said he is not well versed in tribal law and has only limited experience with federal law enforcement.

He said top brass at the Navajo Police Department would also need to learn to accept a new police chief. The position has been vacant since 2008, which has caused inconsistent policies and procedures to spread among the 225 sworn police officers and support staff that serve the nation's seven police districts, according to Francisco.

"I foresee some restructuring of personnel to better fit and serve the police departments," Francisco said.

Francisco said the shooting death in April 2015 of Navajo police Officer Alex Yazzie inspired him to apply for the chief position.

"Seeing there was a lack of leadership — I don't know if it contributed — but I realized there was a lack of leadership, and that needed to change," he said.

Tribal leaders announced July 6 that Francisco would serve as the new chief of police, a week before a July 13 hiring deadline imposed last month by the Navajo Council's Law and Order Committee.

Phillip Francisco, the new Navajo Nation chief of police, is a U.S. Army veteran

A Farmington native, Francisco started his law enforcement career in 1999 as a patrolman at the Aztec Police Department, according to employment records obtained from the Farmington Police Department.

That same year, he earned an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, where he served for four years as a multi-channel transmission systems operator, responsible for the operation and maintenance of communications equipment.

In 2001, he was hired by the San Juan County Sheriff's Office, where he worked as a traffic cop in the agency's DWI unit. He achieved the rank of corporal at the sheriff's office before being hired in August 2014 at the Farmington Police Department.

Francisco suffered no disciplinary actions during his tenure at the two law enforcement agencies, according to employment records.

Sheriff's office detective Lt. Kyle Lincoln described Francisco as "driven."

"He is quiet and reserved, but he has always been a hard worker," Lincoln said, adding later, "He was always there for you and stayed until the job was done."

In May 2014, Francisco obtained a bachelor's degree with a psychology major from the University of New Mexico. Francisco is married and has five children, one of whom is from a previous marriage.

The police chief is Bilagáana (Anglo), born for Hashtl’ishnii (Mud Clan), according to a tribal department of public safety press release. His maternal grandfather clan is Bilagáana (Anglo), and his paternal grandfather clan is Tódích’íi’nii (Bitter Water).

New Navajo Nation Police Chief Phillip Francisco has served with the Aztec Police Department, the San Juan County Sheriff's Office and the Farmington Police Department.

Francisco said during Friday's interview he and his wife, Glynna, are both half Navajo.

"I have been in the community for a long time," Francisco said. "I had a foot in both worlds, as half white and half Navajo."

Francisco identified slow response times and the absence of a tribal Amber Alert system as the issues he wishes to address, but he acknowledged there were other significant challenges, including a shortage of officers.

"We can't be effective on any directed enforcement until we address the baseline policing service," he said when asked about how to tackle the problem of drunken driving on the reservation.

Even on the issues he wanted to address, Francisco said there are limitations.

"There will never be a five-minute response time," he said. "Ever. Because things are so far apart. But getting it to a reasonable response time, even if it's just a phone call, that would be my goal."

He said he was excited to work with the talented men and women who work in tribal law enforcement.

"I know there is a lot of good and hard-working officers on the Navajo Nation," he said. "I hope to provide the leadership they need to do a better job."

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.