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'Outmanned & outgunned:' Tribal police officers face dangerous challenges

The shooting death of 27-year-old Navajo Nation Police Officer Houston James Largo, who was responding to a routine domestic violence call in the remote community of Prewitt, N.M. on Sunday, highlights the unique challenges his agency faces in fighting crime.

Tribal officers often patrol vast, desolate areas – sometimes 1,000 miles at a time – that are often more underdeveloped and dangerous than other parts of the country. And they do so without many of the resources and funding other law enforcement agencies receive.

So the officers often find themselves outmanned, outgunned and unprepared.

“One of the most trying times I have in serving as president of the Navajo Nation is when I get word that one of our police officers has had their life taken needlessly,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said in a press release. “It brings to mind the situations our officers face every day in responding to calls, getting in their unit and putting their lives on the line. It must be difficult for family members to know their loved ones might not return.”

Begaye has called for continued support of police officers who are protecting the Navajo Nation.

It sometimes takes tribal officers more than an hour to respond to calls and many times they do so alone without any backup.

“Our nation mourns for you as does the country,” Begaye said. “Our officer’s lives are precious. They are the ones who stand guard over our nation and protect us.”

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Edmund Yazzie said a major problem the Nation faces is domestic violence, which has plagued the Navajo Nation for years.

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“Unfortunately, many of our officers face this devastating issue every day when they are on duty and sadly it resulted in the loss of one of our bravest today,” Yazzie said in a statement on Sunday.

Prewitt, N.M., a tiny community not counted by the U.S. Census, rests along Interstate 40, which is 81 miles west of Albuquerque, the state’s capital and its largest city.

It is remote areas like this, defined by majestic red mesas, patches of sagebrush in rust-colored dirt, enclaves of mobile homes in various states of wear and disrepair, and dark, winding roads – many not even paved – that comprise the typical patrol areas for officers like Largo of the Navajo Nation .

The four-and-a-half-year veteran was one of 200 patrol officers, 70 short of what is mandated by the tribe. They patrol 27,425 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah that house the nation’s largest Indian reservation, which has a population of 180,000.

Navajo Nation Police Chief Phillip Francisco told Fox News that it is not unusual for one officer to be responsible for patrolling 1,000 miles.

“The Crownpoint District, where officer Largo served, is our largest at over 4,000 square miles and we typically have five officers on per shift,” Francisco said. “It can take officers more than an hour to respond to a call, mostly by themselves.”

Francisco said this daunting challenge places his officers in one of the most unique categories of any law enforcement agency in the nation despite assistance from New Mexico State Police and the sheriff departments of the counties where the reservations reside.

Prewitt is nestled in McKinley County in northwest New Mexico. The FBI investigates violent crimes in the region since Indian land is on federal property. But the tribal police officers are basically on their own for other crimes. A Safe Trails Task Force initiative was formed in 1994 to combat a growing crime wave in Indian Country.

“Most departments in the country have more than 20 officers per 10,000 residents. We have 11,” Francisco said. “This is a staggering amount of area and people to cover.”

Contrary to the 1970s hit, Ball of Confusion by the Temptations, which had a line that said…”the only safe place to live is on an Indian reservation,” the reality is that per capita reservations are among the most dangerous.

Federal statistics in 2013 shocked the nation. The numbers showed the violent crime rate on Indian reservations was 20 times the national average. The homicide rate passed that of Seattle and Boston.

By 2015, the homicide rate had dropped to 17, the number of rapes decreased to 64 and there were 1,358 cases of aggravated assault.

Domestic violence rates have long been off the charts – many times fueled by alcohol abuse.

These toxic factors mixed together sometimes have dangerous consequences for police officers putting their life on the line. Other than Largo, Navajo Nation Police Officer Alex Yazzie, 42, also was killed in the line of duty in 2015.

"Our officers put themselves in highly volatile situations every day in addressing domestic violence situations," Begaye said in his statement. "Although they are highly trained, they can still be severely wounded, which unfortunately is what happened today."

McKinley County Sheriff Ron Silversmith had worked with Largo both when he served with the Gallup Police Department and the sheriff’s department. He said he knows first-hand the dangers police officers face when they patrol the remote Navajo Reservation.

"It is probably one of the most dangerous jobs a police officer can have," Silversmith said. "There are a lot of times where there is no radio contact and you're on your own. You have to be strong willed to work out there."

Silversmith said officers are regularly out in the middle of nowhere on their own. It gets so dark in some areas you cannot see your hand in front of your face.

"They are short staffed and outnumbered and out gunned," he said.

Begaye said the tribe recently upgraded equipment and protective devices for its police department. But they still fall far behind other departments. Francisco said he needs to send recruits to Arizona Department of Public Safety’s academy because their building was condemned.

The other challenge he faces is recruiting new officers. The officers are paid $5 per hour less than surrounding state and municipal law enforcement agencies. And, with the vast amount of land that needs to be patrolled, recruits are far and few between.

In the meantime, the police department is burying another police officer.

Officials said a suspect is in custody in the Largo case but has not released the person’s name. The suspect will face federal charges, police said.


Joseph J. Kolb is a regular contributor to Fox News Latino.

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