Navajo Co. to station deputies in Kayenta, Piñon

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Nov. 25, 2009

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Another major effort is underway to cross-deputize Navajo and non-Navajo law enforcement authorities where the tribal land overlaps the state of Arizona.

County sheriff's deputies will soon be stationed in northern Navajo County, as they are in the Navajo parts of Apache County.

Cross-deputization is a simple concept: Allow county deputies to be sworn in as tribal police and vice versa so they can handle calls in their areas, whether it is reservation land or not.

It's already being done in New Mexico, thanks in large part to a former McKinley County sheriff, Frank Gonzales, who believed strongly in the need for it.

Sheriff's deputies have for years been a common sight on Navajo land in New Mexico, while in Arizona the county sheriffs steered clear of the reservation until recent years, when then Apache County Sheriff Brian Hounshell extended service to Navajo parts of the county.

Navajo land takes up half or more of the landmass and Navajos are the largest population group in Apache and Navajo counties.

Meetings are underway to cross-deputize law officers in Apache and Navajo counties, while Coconino County is said to be interested but is not actively pursuing an agreement with the Navajo Nation.

There are no cross-deputization talks planned in Utah, where Navajos account for over 50 percent of the population in one county, San Juan.

Navajo County Sheriff Kelly "KC" Clark said the current situation leaves a lot to be desired.

County deputies have no jurisdiction over Natives who commit crimes on the reservation, he noted.

If they respond to a domestic violence call on tribal land, for instance, county deputies can take steps to make sure the situation is under control and everyone is protected but they can't arrest anyone, Clark said.

Instead, they have to wait until a tribal police officer shows up and this can take hours because of the vast distances on the reservation and shortage of tribal police officers.

"If we had cross-deputization, the county officer would be able to make an arrest, cite the individual to tribal court, and take him to a tribal jail," Clark said.

The same situation could happen in reverse if a non-Native commits a crime.

Tribal police have no jurisdiction if an Anglo is found battering his or her spouse, so the tribal officer just tries to calm the situation until a county deputy shows up to make the arrest and cart the batterer to an off-reservation jail.

County and tribal officials both say the situation results in a duplication of effort and delays the officers' response to other calls.

Two weeks ago tribal officials - Director of Public Safety Samson Cowboy and Acting Tribal Police Chief Bobby Etsitty - and county officials - Clark and Navajo County Attorney Brad Carlyon - met to sign an agreement in support of cross-deputizing county law officers.

The BIA would cross-deputize the sheriff's officers so they could assist BIA and tribal police when crimes occur on the reservation.

The next step is to get approval of the agreement from the BIA and the Navajo Nation Council, which Cowboy hopes can come as soon as possible.

"We need something like this," he said, adding that cross-deputization in New Mexico is working out well for both the tribe and county law enforcement.

Clark said cross-deputization has also worked well in Arizona when it has occurred on a temporary basis. For example, county deputies were cross-deputized to help out at the recent fairs in Tuba City and Piñon.

Council Delegate Jonathan Nez (Shonto), who also is a member of the Navajo County Board of Supervisors, said he expects the council to OK the agreement since it has the support of Cowboy and Etsitty.

"They are the voice of Navajo Nation law enforcement," he said. "The council looks to them and the Public Safety Committee for guidance in a matter such as this."

The Public Safety Committee has been briefed on the matter is fully behind it, said both Cowboy and Nez. Clark said the proposal also has the support of several chapters in Navajo and Apache counties.

"The support has been widespread and enthusiastic," he said.

Apache County Attorney Michael Whiting agreed, saying that he has been pushing for cross-deputization since winning election last year.

"This was a campaign promise and I feel it is very badly needed," Whiting said.

Over the past several years, Apache County has stationed several of its deputies in reservation areas and Navajo County is now in the process of doing the same thing.

Two Navajo County sheriff's deputies will be stationed permanently on the reservation, one in Piñon and the other in Kayenta.

The county recently hired Ronald Singer, a former tribal police officer, to serve in Kayenta. Clark said he is going through the pre-employment process now.

The county is working with Piñon Chapter and school officials to get a deputy assigned to that area, hopefully by spring. The school district has agreed to provide housing and the county supervisors have agreed to provide the personnel and equipment.

"We're now putting the money together," said Clark, who said $150,000 has been committed to the project.

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