Navajo officials talk tribal AMBER Alert system

Steve Garrison

FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation's emergency services coordinator provided Northern Agency chapter officials an update this morning on the implementation of a tribal emergency alert system, four months after the current AMBER Alert system was called into question during the abduction and murder of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike.

Navajo Police Department Chief Phillip Francisco discusses law enforcement issues on Friday at the Northern Navajo Agency Council meeting in Red Valley, Ariz. Francisco said more tribal law enforcement officers would mean more proactive policing on the reservation.

Coordinator Harlan Cleveland said the tribal government is in talks with the U.S. Department of Justice about the establishment on tribal land of the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System, a federal alert system created in 2006 in response to the destructive force of Hurricane Katrina.

Cleveland said the tribal government would need to sign a memorandum of agreement with the DOJ before it could implement the federal alert system, which could be used to notify residents in various emergency situations. He said the tribe also would need to purchase the web-based software used to issue emergency alerts, which could cost between $50,000 and $100,000.

Until that system is established, Cleveland said the tribal government has worked with New Mexico, Utah and Arizona law enforcement officials to more effectively issue AMBER Alerts across the Navajo Nation. An internal form has also been created for police to report an abduction, according to Cleveland.

Residents raised concerns about the AMBER Alert system after Ashlynne Mike and her 9-year-old brother were kidnapped the afternoon of May 2 as the children played together near their home in Lower Fruitland. The children were transported to the Shiprock pinnacle, where Ashlynne Mike was sexually assaulted and bludgeoned to death with a tire iron.

Mike's brother was found by a motorist walking alongside Navajo Route 13, and he disclosed to a tribal criminal investigator what occurred. Tribal police contacted the FBI, and law enforcement officials began to search the area near Shiprock pinnacle, but an AMBER Alert was not issued to residents until 2:30 a.m., about five hours after police learned about the incident.

Navajo Police Department Chief Phillip Francisco, left, discusses police resources with Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty on Friday at the Northern Navajo Agency Council meeting in Red Valley, Ariz.

Tom Begaye Jr., 27, has been charged in the girl's murder.

The DOJ provided the Navajo Nation a $357,000 grant in 2011 to implement an emergency alert system, but the project remained incomplete, and Navajo officials could not account for how the federal funds were spent, a point raised at the Northern Navajo Agency Council Meeting this morning by San Juan Chapter President Rick Nez, who represents Lower Fruitland.

"The U.S. DOJ gave the Navajo Nation a lot of money," Nez said. "It wasn't used properly; it was used for administrative costs."

Cleveland said in an interview after the meeting the AMBER Alert Task Force, created by President Russell Begaye on May 9 after Mike's murder, continued to investigate what happened to the federal grant.

He said at least part of it was used to purchase search-and-rescue equipment, which could still be used by police in a missing person search.

Nez invited the new Navajo Nation police chief, Phillip Francisco, to provide an update to the chapter officials about the new AMBER Alert system, but the chief deferred to Cleveland on that issue.

Brightly colored bouquets and toys on Friday decorate a memorial site established on Navajo Route 36, near the Lower Fruitland home of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye created a taskforce after Mike's death to establish an independent tribal Amber Alert System.

Francisco instead addressed the police department's officer shortage, which he said hampered the agency's ability to effectively enforce tribal law on the reservation.

Francisco said the department was budgeted for 270 officers, but currently employs only 200. He said part of the issue stemmed from low pay, which the Navajo Nation Council recently addressed by raising police pay by about 2 1/2 to 3 percent.

"Once I get staffing up, we can be more proactive with policing," he said.

He said the police department also suffered from a small command staff and an outdated dispatch system.

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