Navajo Nation, Feds Take On Overwhelming Violent Crime

March 01, 2013

Photo by Laurel Morales
The Navajo Nation just finished one of four new jails in Tuba City.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- The Navajo Nation is one of the most violent reservations in the country. According to FBI reports, in the last five years more rapes were reported on the Navajo Nation than in San Diego, Detroit and several other more populous U.S. cities.

The tribe just opened one of four new jails. But there’s not enough funding to staff them.

Monument Valley is known for its red sandstone buttes and spires. Now it’s notorious for something else -- crime.

In one 16-hour period last October a string of four unrelated murders exposed the tribe’s dark side.

Navajo tribal officials blame their meager economy and rampant substance abuse. They also lack the resources to fight crime. Phoenix, for example, has five times as many police officers for every 1,000 people.

The FBI tries to take on the most violent crimes, but McDonald Rominger, who heads the northern Arizona FBI office, said he needs more manpower to patrol an area the size of West Virginia.

"It’s not uncommon for FBI agents or Navajo criminal investigators to drive 600-700 miles in one day just trying to accomplish something that would take a detective in San Francisco an hour to accomplish," Rominger said.

And when someone is arrested by a Navajo police officer, the offender may only be held for eight hours because the tribe doesn’t have enough jail space.

"There’s been a history of revolving-door justice out there because of their lack of infrastructure and lack of jail space on the Navajo Nation, where individuals are arrested for serious offenses but released shortly thereafter because there’s no jail space out there," Rominger said.

Navajo leaders hope a new jail in Tuba City -- plus three more on the way -- will change that.

Jail supervisor Robbin Preston recently showed off his new state-of-the-art building, about an hour north of Flagstaff.

Preston said up until recently Tuba City had two Old West-style jail cells in a building that was falling apart. The recidivism rate was so high, Preston couldn’t keep track of it.

Photo by Laurel Morales
Tuba City corrections supervisor Robbin Preston shows off the new jail. He needs funding for 110 officers and staff to run the facility.

"We have inmates who know how to book themselves," Preston said. "If I have a new officer on the floor who forgot to do a process I have inmates who will say 'you forgot to do this.'"

Once the tribe finds the money to staff it, the new 130-bed jail will handle inmates for much longer periods and provide job training and substance abuse counseling.

Currently the maximum tribal court sentence is only a year. The Navajo chief prosecutor said if the tribe mandates state-bar-certified judges and attorneys, it could impose longer sentences.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona has 19 lawyers working only on Indian Country cases. Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Schneider said that’s more than any other office in the country.

"It’s never enough," Schneider said. "I’m always amazed at the volume of cases and we could always do more."

But according to a 2010 Government Accountability Study his office declined to prosecute half of Indian Country cases.

Photo by Laurel Morales
Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Schneider trains nurses and officers how to preserve evidence at the Hopi Health Care Center in Polacca.

"And unfortunately not every single one of these incidents can we prove all the time and that’s frustrating," Schneider said. "We wish that every single one we could."

And Schneider’s office is doing something to change that. Assistant U.S. Attorney Dyanne Greer is training tribal officers and nurses on the Hopi Reservation.

"Why is it important to know who did it?" Greer asked the group. "You don’t want to send this person home to the same individual who beat the crap out of her or who raped her."

Evidence critical to an investigation is often lost because it wasn’t collected or preserved properly. And Greer says nurses and doctors often don’t want to report a case, because they think they’re violating their HIPAA code of privacy.

"We do not want these cases lost," Greer said. "We do not want these cases to fall through the cracks. And people say, ‘well what about this?’ We never heard about it, if we never hear about it we can’t do anything about it, so err on the side of caution and let us know."

Plus, Greer said successfully prosecuting a domestic violence offender is the equivalent of homicide prevention.