Women officers big part of Shiprock district

Noel Lyn Smith, nsmith@daily-times.com

SHIPROCK — After preparing her vehicle, Navajo Nation police Sgt. Shirley Sanisya was ready to patrol the parking lots, streets and neighborhoods of this town.

Officer LoJann Dennison, left, Officer Darlene Foster, Sgt. Vera Nelson, Sgt. Shirley Sanisya, Officer Felicia Freeman and Officer Kansas Antone are among the women who serve in the Navajo Nation Police Department's Shiprock district.

Sanisya has been with the tribal police department for more than 20 years. Throughout her service, she has learned various skills and provides equipment training to other officers. She is one of 48 women on the force and one of two women to earn the rank of sergeant in the Shiprock district.

Among her duties these days is serving as the delegated lieutenant for the district, which provides service to communities throughout the Four Corners.

"It seems like the younger officers always look up and you see that shine in their eyes when they see a female supervisor. …It's nice to inspire," Sanisya said.

In the Shiprock District, there are 36 law enforcement officers — 26 men and 10 women — who provide services in an area that goes as far south as Naschitti, north to the New Mexico-Colorado state line, east to the Upper Fruitland area and west into Arizona and Utah.

Navajo Nation Police Sgt. Shirley Sanisya looks over the department's new police unit Thursday in Shiprock.

Overall, the tribe's police department is comprised of 183 men and 48 women who work in seven districts that cover approximately 27,000 square miles.

Navajo Nation Police Chief Phillip Francisco said for the size of the department and the area they serve, the percentage of women officers in its force is higher than the national average.

More than one female officer in Shiprock described her coworkers as "family" because they share a common bond in protecting and serving communities located in three states.

"We look out for other another," Officer Darlene Foster said.

Officer Felicia Freeman added, "Your safety here, at work, is what brings you home each and every day."

Navajo Nation Police Officer Felicia Freeman talks with a motorist during a traffic stop Thursday in Shiprock.

As female officers, they are not treated differently than their male counterparts because they can ease tensions through dialogue and, in some cases, they are treated with greater respect because Navajos are a matriarchal society.

"I'm part of the guys. We work together to achieve one common goal, which is to make sure everyone is safe," Officer Kansas Antone said.

A number of women said they became interested in tribal law enforcement after watching relatives pursue the career. In the case of Antone, she is following her mother, Gladys Antone, and they work together in the Crownpoint District.

"I love going on scene with her. It's fun. …I do get questioned as to why I do what I do. Ultimately, it comes back to helping the people, developing community awareness and being there for the community," Kansas Antone said.

Navajo Nation Police Sgt. Shirley Sanisya, left, and Officer Kansas Antone are two of the 48 women who are part of the Navajo Nation Police Department.

Freeman is one of many officers who are also mothers. She has worked in Shiprock for 12 years and has a common-law spouse and two boys.

"When you come home, you're a little fatigued," she said. "Your stress level is high. So you're trying to leave work at work before you go home but sometimes, it's hard to do."

Foster said the support she receives from her family keeps her going.

"I'm a mom, I'm a wife. My husband is my biggest supporter in what I do, and he understands what I go through," Foster said adding she has responded to situations that included a plane crash, an infant homicide and the March 2015 shooting near Red Valley, Ariz., that claimed the life of Officer Alex Yazzie.

Before becoming a police officer, Foster was a detention officer in Crownpoint. It was there she saw information about a police recruitment drive and decided to apply. In 1999, she graduated from the Northern Arizona Regional Training Academy in Prescott, Ariz.

Foster worked for 10 years in Crownpoint, then transferred to Shiprock, where she has worked for nine years.

"It's busy. Every day is different. We're constantly going," Foster said.

Navajo Nation Police Officer Felicia Freeman talks with two people during a welfare check Thursday at the Navajo Nation Shopping Center in Shiprock.

Francisco said the department is actively recruiting new officers to fill approximately 70 positions across the seven police districts.

Before he took the reigns of the department last August, each district held recruitment drives, but now one takes place every two weeks in Window Rock, Ariz.

He said the staffing shortage is causing officers to be overworked.

"We're not able to do other things like community outreach and other programs, which is important, but we don't have the manpower to do it," he said. "It's very important for me to fill those positions, so I can start those projects that engage the communities and make it safer."

Under the former system, recruitment was not being done effectively, but now it is drawing interest, he said adding a group of 13 individuals recently passed the initial round of testing.

If the pace keeps steady, the open positions could be filled in a year, he said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.