'Navajo Cops' filming 6 new episodes on rez

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Aug. 25, 2011

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The National Geographic Channel can't get enough of seeing Navajo Nation police officers in action.

So after airing a one-hour documentary on the subject in May, the cable channel has now ordered another six episodes of the reality series "Navajo Cops."

Crews from Flight 33 Productions, which did the first show, are now on the reservation and will spend the next several weeks filming Navajo police in the Crownpoint and Tuba City districts as they go about their duties.

"National Geographic was happy with the response of the first show," said producer Sam Dolan. "It really held its audience and the word-of-mouth attracted people to watch it."

What made that first show so unique, he said, was that it gave the audience a look at a different type of police operation, showing Navajo officers dealing with typical problems while at the same time being true to their culture.

The original show centered on police activities in and around Window Rock, Shiprock and Chinle. The new episodes, Dolan said, would give the crews a chance to ride with officers from other districts.

It will also give the program a chance to explore other aspects of the life of Navajo police officers, he said, pointing out that many of those profiled in the first show center their off-duty lives around working with young kids and making their communities a better place to live - the best kind of crime prevention.

"They really take their jobs seriously," Dolan said, pointing out that many of the officers serve in the place where they were born and raised so they feel a special responsibility to make their communities safer.

"Policemen in the big cities don't have this relationship with the communities and neighborhoods they serve," he said.

The popularity of the original show may have been helped by the fictional careers of Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, the Navajo police protagonists of the late Tony Hillerman's best-selling crime novels set in Dinétah.

"That show gave Hillerman fans a chance to see a police officer in action," Dolan said.

Reality shows based on law enforcement are very popular right now and the National Geographic Channel has seen good ratings with shows like "Border Wars," which shows the U.S. Border Patrol in action.

Dolan said that when he was growing up in northern Arizona, he was a fan of the Hillerman books and when his father, who also works with the production company, were trying to think of a program that would fit in with NatGeo, the discussions soon focused on a program showing the Navajo police in action.

When the producers approached the Navajo Nation about the idea, there was some hesitance but they emphasized their intention to show the nation and its police department in a positive light.

The tribe's Office of Broadcast Services helped with the logistics, and Dolan said, "We couldn't have done this without their help."

Another concern dealt with the filmmakers' safety since Navajo police often are called into volatile situations in remote spots where backup could be an hour or more away.

At least two production crewmembers - a cameraman and an audio technician - go out daily with the police officers and Dolan said he usually joins a crew as well.

All crewmembers are required to wear bulletproof vests and sign documents saying they understand the dangers and waive the responsibility of the tribe and the police department if they get injured or killed.

"It was an eye-opening experience," Dolan said of the ride-alongs with Officer Carlton Jim.

Another aspect of the job has been watching Navajo people as they react to seeing television crews follow the police officers around.

The crew was in Wheatfields Chapter during production of the first show when they came upon an elderly Navajo woman who watched them as they were filming, Dolan recalled.

Later, they heard her tell friends that she saw a "caterpillar on a stick," referring to the microphone boom that is held over people in a scene to capture sound.

Dolan said no air dates have been set yet for the new episodes, but they will probably run early next year or in the spring. People can go to the NatGeo Web site (channel.nationalgeographic.com) to keep in touch with the series' progress and to see clips from the first show and previews of the upcoming shows.

Because not everyone on the reservation has access to the National Geographic Channel, Dolan said he has been generous about handing out DVDs of the original show.

He said he would be receptive to doing screenings at the Navajo Nation Museum as well for those who aren't able to see "Navajo Cops" on their TVs.

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