By Tracy Abiaka
WASHINGTON – A Navajo Nation official told a Senate panel this week that the tribe’s police department lacks the resources to attract and retain officers, a problem that experts say is faced by tribal police departments across the country.
Navajo Council Delegate Eugenia Charles-Newton told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Wednesday that drug traffickers “know that Indian Country has far too few officers, especially with the size of some of our nation, our reservations.”
“We have heard the stories about what’s happening here within Indian Country when it comes to violence against Natives,” said Charles-Newton, chairwoman of the Navajo Nation Council’s Law and Order Committee. She said a lack of police “does make it an issue.”
It’s not just the Navajo Nation. The need for officers has been one of the most talked about issues among police chiefs at annual conferences of the National Native American Law Enforcement Association, said board member emeritus Tom Woolworth.
Less competitive wages and benefits are the main contributors making it harder to retain younger recruits, he said.
“For younger officers, especially those who have graduated an academy and have gone back to their communities to work, many of them are looking at essentially, ‘Can I promote up and will my pay increase and will there be additional benefits?’” said Woolworth.
“When they start asking those questions, a lot of them begin to start looking to see if those opportunities may or may not exist,” he said.
As a result, Woolworth said officers may look for better jobs in federal or state agencies, county sheriff’s offices or other local law enforcement. He said what causes some officers to remain is that they are serving in their own reservations and don’t want to leave their family.
But when costs are increasing and other benefits are needed, the comfort of home may not be enough enticement for an officer to stay, especially in rural communities.
“It’s hard to become competitive because we are in rural Arizona,” said Yavapai-Apache Police Chief Nathan Huibregtse. “We can’t compete with what we call the Phoenix wage. They pay a lot more down there in those regions.
“A lot of what we call the metropolitan tribes, which are down in the Phoenix area, have a large population to pull from. And they get more money and are very financially stable,” he said. “When you start getting out to rural Arizona, that’s when it becomes more challenging.”
Huibregtse said his department is trying to remain competitive with pay and benefits, and is working on getting its officers into the Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, which many metropolitan tribes already belong to.
The Navajo Nation also is taking steps to address its need for police officers on their land. Leonard Redhorse, police commander at the Navajo Nation Shiprock Police Department, said the force is planning to cut the age requirement for recruits from 21 to 18, which should help increase the candidate pool and significantly expand the number of officers for patrol response.
Huibregtse said the federal government could do a better job of providing equal benefits to rural tribal departments. That was echoed by Charles-Newtown, who recommended at the hearing that Bureau of Indian Affairs funds be used for sign-on and retention bonuses.
Charles-Newton also criticized the FBI and Justice Department, which she said have consistently declined to investigate and prosecute crimes on Native land, and have allowed investigations to fall through the cracks without explanation.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for a statement. But in a written response, the FBI said it has investigative responsibility for federal crimes committed on about 200 Indian reservations, and that it investigates matters that fall within its jurisdiction without regard to age, race, gender, or other personal demographics.
“In the last two years, the FBI has opened more than 6,500 Indian Country Crime investigations to include numerous homicide, sexual assault, and violent assault investigations,” the statement said. “The decision to prosecute or decline cases rests with the United States Attorney’s Offices.”
But Charles-Newton called on lawmakers to hold both departments more accountable.