Criminal investigators currently serve in role of coroners

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FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation Council has approved legislation to establish a new department for medical examiners and free up resources for criminal investigators to focus on handling major crime investigations.

The legislation was approved on Dec. 20 on the second day of a special session of the tribal council, according to an Office of the Speaker press release.

If signed into law, it would lead to the formation of a new department in the tribe's Division of Public Safety for medical examiners to investigate suspicious deaths on the Navajo Nation and perform coroner duties, which includes completing death certificates.

Those duties are about 40 percent of the workload for the tribe's Department of Criminal Investigation, according to director Dale West.

"It's really exciting to see this," West said. "A lot of people have been saying this is something that has been needed for a long time."

West stated there is no other law enforcement entity in the United States that handles the investigation of major crimes and also acts as a coroner.

It was a 2004 executive order from then-Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. that charged the department with handling the coroner duties, according to a copy of the resolution.

The resolution also states the criminal investigation department is straining to perform the duties and handle major crime investigation as it deals with a manpower shortage.

The new department would help free up more resources the criminal investigation department needs, according to West.

"It's going to help us to focus on justice for the people of the Navajo Nation and improves services in the area of investigation of major crimes," West said.

The new department would operate five satellite offices across the Navajo Nation.

There is a lot of work left to be done before the new department is launched, according to West.

An organizational chart to illustrate the structure of the department along with a plan of operations needs to be approved by the tribal council's Law and Order Committee. A funding source also needs to identified, and a budget needs to be approved.

West believes the earliest the department could be launched is October 2019 or January 2020.

President Russell Begaye has 10 calendar days to sign the legislation into law or veto it.

Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 or via email at jkellogg@daily-times.com.

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