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For Navajo Police, jurisdiction isn’t an issue when officers need help

Navajo Police welcome support from Farmington Police
The Farmington Police BearCat used by FPD SWAT in an Oct. 6 incident on the Navajo Reservation that ended in a police-involved shooting that led to the suspect's death.

It was a busy night Friday night in Shiprock. The Northern Navajo Nation Fair was in full swing with a powwow, Indian Market and the Miss Northern Navajo Pageant at the fairgrounds.

Navajo Nation Police were spread thin by a staff shortage, a busy fair and an incident in Tuba City.

Earlier that day, a man started shooting at police, hitting one officer. He holed up in trailer at the bottom of a hill near the fairgrounds.

“We were on a hilltop, basically, and just a quarter mile away there were thousands of people enjoying the fair,” Navajo Police Chief Darryl Noon said, recalling the night of Oct. 6, when he asked Farmington Police for help.

Police were at a “tactical disadvantage” just as they are when they respond to many locations on the Navajo Reservation. “We respond to a lot of remote locations, where we don't have sufficient cover. … We’re driving up to a single residence that's basically out in the middle of nowhere, and we’re tactically at a tactical disadvantage, and we can't sneak up on the house.”

This is what happened that night. The suspect, who shot a Navajo Police officer, was in an RV trailer, armed and refusing to come out.

“By the time that the event escalated to what it did, there was no possibility of us just walking away because, you know, we had to take into account the safety of the nearby residences as well as all those people that we got at the fair, but we had no way to get close enough to the guy to try to communicate with him,” Noon said.

“I’m the one who actually made the call for one of our commanders to get a hold of Farmington and see if they could come out to assist,” Noon said.

An evidence tag marks a spot that was damaged on the department's BearCat during an Oct. 6 police-involved shooting on the reservation.

Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe wanted to help. He wanted to be a good neighbor. Navajo Police were in need of an armored vehicle and assistance from SWAT. Hebbe didn’t think about jurisdictional issues or consider whether there was a memorandum of understanding between the tribe and the city of Farmington.

“When you’ve got an emergency and you need help we’ll sort out the jurisdictional issues later, not when you have a crisis and you have people’s lives on the line,” Hebbe said. “This was a dynamic set of circumstances, and this is why I did it. If they can’t get close to the guy, we’ll use the armor and they could do the talking.”

Farmington Police SWAT headed out to Shiprock about 7:34 p.m. with their Bearcat and MRAP armored vehicle, which ended up sustaining damage from multiple bullets being shot at it. The SWAT team also brought “protective armored equipment,” according to an Oct. 13 news release from Farmington Police.

While they were on the scene, Navajo Police attempted to communicate with the suspect and negotiate a peaceful surrender, but the suspect fired his gun from the trailer and another officer with the Navajo Division of Public Safety was injured and had to be evacuated from the scene, according to earlier reports.

At this time, the suspect exited the trailer and was still firing his gun, according to earlier reports. Officers from the Navajo Division of Public Safety fired multiple rounds, and Farmington Police Sgt. Matt Burns fired a single round. The suspect was hit and died on the scene, and pending an autopsy it is unknown how many times he was hit by gunfire or which officers fired the deadly shots, Hebbe said in an earlier interview.

Evidence tags mark the spots that were damaged on the department's BearCat during an Oct. 6 police-involved shooting on the reservation.

This entire incident did raise questions about the jurisdiction of local law enforcement on Navajo Tribal land, something Noon said should not be an issue when people’s lives are on the line.

“Even with what happened in Farmington – with the mass shooting. You know, I'd like to believe that had I been in Shiprock and got notified immediately what was going on, I can tell you that I probably would have grabbed a couple of officers and raced to Farmington to try to help,” Noon said. “You know, because all the other stuff when it comes to the jurisdiction and all that, we can sort all that out later. Right now, at that point, you know, I would just look at Farmington needs your help.”

He added that when law enforcement from the towns bordering the reservation come to help on the Navajo Nation, they’re doing it at his request. “They’re operating under my authority.”

And with the vast size of the Navajo Nation, help is welcomed. The Navajo Nation is largest Indian reservation in the United States. Comprising nearly 16 million acres or 27,413 square miles, it is found in three different states – Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, according to the Indian Health Service.

A recent study showed Navajo Police “needed 500 police officers to basically conduct basic functions of policing on the Navajo Nation,” Noon said, adding the appropriate number for a “more realistic police force” is 750.

There are 212 Navajo Nation Police officers on staff at this time. The department loses officers to retirement, some left because of COVID. So even with the officers in the police academy, “we’re not really making headway,” Noon said.

This is where support from the outside becomes important.

“We need that. We’re so short-staffed with such a large geographical area to police that you know we need that help,” Noon said, “and we are thankful for the departments who do help us now.”

The FBI has jurisdiction over criminal cases on tribal land, when federal crimes are committed, but when policing all sorts of incidents the tribal police force enjoys partnerships with Gallup Police and Farmington Police. They also partner with the New Mexico State Police.

“We run a lot of joint traffic enforcement programs; you know, they'll enforce traffic on state highways, we'll hit the big roads,” Noon said, adding the Arizona Department of Public Safety also “has a big presence on the Navajo Nation.”

When asked if these other agencies come out to the reservation a lot, Noon said, “they come to help,” and they also come to build goodwill in the community.

The Farmington Police Department often goes out to the Northern Navajo Nation Fair and the officers participate in the parade. They have been doing that, since Noon was on the Farmington Police force. He also recalled the first time Chief Hebbe asked about going out to Shiprock for the fair. People were telling Hebbe, that they would be “throwing rocks” at the police, but Noon set the record straight.

“I told him, if anything, they’re gonna love us out there,” he said, adding he and Hebbe walked the parade route shaking hands with people and there was “nothing but positive reactions to us being there as the Farmington Police Department.”

Noon touched on the fact that there has been a “bad history” when considering things that happened in Farmington in the 1970s and 1980s, but by having Farmington Police come out and offer support in times of crisis “goes to show that you know, we just want to help each other, and they’re willing to help, and we will continue to welcome them.”