Police violence against Native Americans in Arizona

We explore systemic violence in Arizona where the highest number of Native Americans were killed by police in 2016.

Native Lives
Tina McGrath sits in front of the many documents pertaining to harm she says she has suffered at the hands of the police [Creede Newton/Al Jazeera]

Winslow, Arizona, United States – On a cool evening in March, a group of Navajo gathered in front of the police department in Winslow, Arizona, holding signs, carrying candles, and demanding justice.

It was March 27, one year since 27-year-old Navajo mother Loreal Tsingine was shot dead by Winslow police officer Austin Shipley.

Tsingine, was shot five times by Shipley on Easter Sunday, 2016, after allegedly shoplifting from a local Circle K shop.

Brandon Benallie, a Navajo member of the national council of The Red Nation, a countrywide organisation of Native and non-Native activists, teachers, students and community organisers that advocates for Native American rights was at the demonstration. He says that after Tsingine was killed in the afternoon, her body was left in the pavement until six the next morning.

“From a Native perspective, you have to take care of the memory of that person. Essentially, she’s supposed to be respectfully remembered before the sun sets,” Benallie says. “To leave her out there for over 12 hours as they waited for a coroner to arrive … it was extremely disheartening and disturbing that they allowed that to happen.”

For Benallie, Tsingine’s death, and the deaths of 23 other Native Americans at the hands of police in 2016, is “a sad affirmation that this racism and violence committed towards Native people is systemic”.

The convenience store where Loreal Tsingine allegedly shoplifted before she was shot dead by a police officer in 2016 [Creede Newton/Al Jazeera]
The convenience store where Loreal Tsingine allegedly shoplifted before she was shot dead by a police officer in 2016 [Creede Newton/Al Jazeera]

Rise in killings

Native Americans, who make up 5.2 million or 1.7 percent of the country’s population, are the only group that saw a rise in deaths due to police shootings, from 13 in 2015 to 24 in 2016, according to the Guardian’s The Counted.

In 2015, Native American deaths were measured as 5.49 per one million people. Blacks killed by police were 7.69 per million. Last year, the number for blacks was 6.66 per one million, while the number for Native Americans rose to 10.13 per million.

Every other racial group saw a decrease, including those whose race is listed as “other”.

“These numbers are so terrible,” Benallie says. “This isn’t the oppression Olympics. There’s no gold medal for who gets killed more by police. When you look at the Latino, black and Native communities, they’re all suffering.”

In 2016, six Native Americans were killed by police in southwest Arizona, the state that is home to the majority of the Navajo Nation and where the highest number of these killings occurred.

Benallie says the struggles of Native Americans must be viewed through the lens of “settler-colonialism”, likening their situation to that of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

The Navajo Nation is a 71,000 square kilometre semi-autonomous territory spanning three separate US states and essentially serving as a reservation, with “border towns” like Winslow and nearby Flagstaff lying on its edges. These border towns have served as guard stations to control the Navajo, Benallie says, with police as the “tools of the settler-colonial process”.

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The Winslow Police Department officer who killed Tsingine had been an officer for three years and had a history of excessive force [Creede Newton/Al Jazeera]
The Winslow Police Department officer who killed Tsingine had been an officer for three years and had a history of excessive force [Creede Newton/Al Jazeera]

Tsingine’s death

Of the six Native Americans killed by police in Arizona last year, Tsingine’s case was the most controversial. It sparked outrage in the Native community.

In Shipley’s bodycam footage, Tsingine can be seen brandishing a pair of scissors.

Ryanle Benally, a Winslow resident who saw Shipley fire, told the local daily newspaper, the Arizona Republic, that when the officer confronted Tsignine, he grabbed her and her “whole body flew over and slammed into the concrete”. He says he saw Shipley pin her to the ground with his knee and at that point thought she was going to be arrested.

“That should have been it,” he said.

Shipley began yelling, “Stop resisting!” Benally then thought the officer pulled out his taser.

“It wasn’t. It was a rapid fire, five times,” the witness said.

On April 5, 2016, candles, flowers and stuffed animals mark the site where Loreal Tsingine was shot and killed by Winslow, Arizona, police officer Austin Shipley on March 27 [AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca]
On April 5, 2016, candles, flowers and stuffed animals mark the site where Loreal Tsingine was shot and killed by Winslow, Arizona, police officer Austin Shipley on March 27 [AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca]

It was later revealed that Tsingine had a history of mental illness and previous altercations with the police.

Shipley also had a history of using excessive force and falsifying records, according to documents from the Arizona Republic’s investigation into his employment record.

Shipley had drawn his gun on suspects five times, his Taser four times – including once on a teenage girl with her back turned to him, and used physical force at least three times. He had been an officer for three years.

For Native and non-Native residents of Winslow, the revelation of Shipley’s employment history raised questions about whether he was qualified to be a police officer.

In July, Maricopa County lawyer Bill Montgomery announced that after a four-month internal investigation, Shipley had been cleared of any criminal conduct and wouldn’t be charged. In October, Shipley, who went on paid leave shortly after killing Tsingine, resigned after being presented with the results of a separate internal investigation.

Benallie and others question why there wasn’t enough evidence for charges, but enough to spur Shipley’s resignation.

Montgomery told Al Jazeera that the investigations varied greatly: “An internal affairs investigation and an employment decision do not have the same burdens of proof.”

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Violence ‘doesn’t begin when someone dies’

Aside from his work in the Red Nation, Benallie helped form the group Bordertown Justice Coalition, which aims to end police violence against his community. The coalition also started the “Justice for Loreal” movement to support Tsingine’s family, with whom they work closely.

Benallie says that while representatives of the Winslow Police Department travelled to the Navajo Nation to speak with her family, there have been “no meaningful reconciliation efforts”.

He says Tsingine’s murder was not “a random act of violence against Native people”. Police violence, Benallie points out, “doesn’t begin when someone dies”. 

Tina McGrath, 48, a Navajo, mother and resident of rural northern Arizona, agrees.

She says that she has endured 20 years of racial profiling and targeted policing. “I feel like [the police] are watching us,” she says. “They know us.”

One of the worst encounters occurred in 2013, she says, when her family was celebrating her husband’s birthday in Flagstaff.

Two employees of a local petrol station followed her son Perratin, who is in his mid-20s and suffers from schizophrenia, and daughter-in-law back to their hotel room after arguing with them at the petrol station. McGrath says the employees were drunk.

A fight ensued and someone at the hotel called the police. When they arrived, McGrath says that she tried to explain that the petrol station employees had instigated the trouble. 

“But the police believed [the employees]. They took their story over ours,” she says.

When the police began to arrest Perratin, he tried to grab on to his father, and the police “jumped on both of them,” McGrath says.

“I thought they were going to kill them,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do.” Panicked, she approached the police and shouted for them to stop. She says one officer, Ryan Darr, pushed her and she “flew back”, landing in a seated position.

Documents provided by the Flagstaff Police Department (FPD) relating to this event and Darr’s employment record confirm much of McGrath’s account of the events.

“As we struggled on the ground I felt a pull on my arm … I could also see other family members closing in,” said Darr in the police report, explaining why he pushed McGrath.

The impact broke a screw in McGrath’s spinal fusion, which had been installed to connect two vertebral segments in order to stop pain in her lower back.

McGrath filed a complaint against Darr, citing use of excessive force.

In the police records regarding the complaint, investigating officer Lieutenant Lasiewicki wrote in his findings that Darr, “did push Tina. The amount of force he used was minimal and justified. Regarding the accusation of excessive force, Sgt Darr is exonerated.”

Of the few witnesses Lasiewicki was able to contact regarding the incident was one of the petrol station employees who had been arrested for assaulting the McGrath family. In the police report, the individual admits he had been drinking.

According to the FPD documents, Darr had received five commendations since 2008. The records also show three citizens’ complaints filed against him, including McGrath’s and another which alleged use of excessive force. Internal FPD investigations found them all to be “unfounded”. to be untrue.

Through Lasiewicki’s investigation, the city prosecutor instructed Darr to issue McGrath with a court summons for “resisting an officer”, a misdemeanour offence.

McGrath says she was never informed of the summons. After roughly a month she was stopped by a police officer for a traffic violation and arrested for missing her court date.

“I sat in jail five [for] days with a broken back. That’s how I found out I got charged,” McGrath says.

She was given another court date and ordered to complete community service.

As time went on, the spinal fusion began “bending,” McGrath says, due to the broken screw, causing her to use a wheelchair and suffer even greater pain.

“I went to court in a wheelchair. I did community service in a wheelchair.”

McGrath says the fusion remains unrepaired. She now walks with a cane. The pain reminds her “every day” of the assault. “I want to fight this,” she says. “I have rights.”

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‘Astounding disparities’

Al Jazeera requested documents concerning the arrest records of both Winslow and Flagstaff police.

Although Native Americans account for 25 percent of Winslow’s population, they averaged nearly 64 percent of arrests from 2012 to 2015, according to police filings.

In nearby Flagstaff, public police reports from 2011 to 2015 show that Native Americans accounted for an average of 47 percent of arrests. US census data from 2010 says Native Americans account for 11.7 percent of the city’s population. 

Al Jazeera presented these statistics to Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which, according to their website, aims to “secure equal justice for all through the rule of law”.

“These are truly astounding disparities. When we see disparities like this, often they’re attributable to some unlawful policy or practice such as racial profiling,” Clarke responds.

According to FPD Deputy Chief Dan Musselman, 56 percent of the Native Americans who have been arrested are repeat offenders and more than half of them don’t live there, but come from other towns or the nearby Navajo Nation. 

Sergeant Cory Runge of the FPD said that “while the census for Coconino County/Flagstaff Metropolitan area indicates Native Americans account for 27 percent of the population”, these census numbers “may be a little misleading because it is estimated that 75 percent of every Navajo dollar is spent in border towns.”

The FPD’s relationship with the community is “variable and dependent on countless factors involved within each interaction,” Runge says.

Many Native Americans come to Flagstaff to do their shopping, according to Musselman and Runge. 

McGrath agrees, saying that shops are scarce on Navajo lands, so many come to border towns to purchase goods. 

Even so, “these are significant disparities, that warrant closer analysis,” Clarke says in reference to the arrest statistics. “It’s hard to believe there’s any explanation other than race being a factor. It certainly deserves an investigation.”

Albert Hale. a former Navajo president, says government institutions have been forced on Native Americans by 'the colonisers' [AP Photo/Ross D Franklin]
Albert Hale. a former Navajo president, says government institutions have been forced on Native Americans by ‘the colonisers’ [AP Photo/Ross D Franklin]

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Navajo leadership

Although McGrath wants to fight her grievances, she says that she is unsure of how to proceed and that there is little institutional help.

McGrath sat in front of a table covered with police reports, complaints, and documents prepared for the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission which was created to assist and investigate alleged rights abuses of Navajo Nation members committed by Native and non-Native institutions and their employees.

Current Navajo institutions are relatively new. The commission was founded in 2006, after reports of violence against Navajo in border towns.

The office of the president of the Navajo Nation was created in 1991 following a restructuring of the national Navajo government.

McGrath, Benallie and other Navajo residents of Flagstaff and Winslow, say their national Navajo leadership and institutions have a troubled history which does not inspire confidence.

Of the Navajo’s eight presidents, four have been investigated for criminal acts centring around corruption, fraud, misused funds and other charges.

Albert Hale, the Navajo Nation’s second president who served from 1995 to 1998, was the first president to resign. His resignation was spurred by his being under investigation for more than 50 felonies and misdemeanours.

“Leadership needs to understand … these are [governmental] institutions forced upon us by the colonisers. We didn’t develop these,” Hale tells Al Jazeera when asked about the Navajo people’s lack of trust in their government when it comes handling human rights abuses as well as other issues.

The former president stressed that offices such as the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and the presidency are not a part of the tribe’s history and that a Navajo “sense of justice” is lacking.

Hale has also served more than a decade in the Arizona legislature and US Congress. He left the state legislature in 2017 after losing re-election for Arizona’s seventh district.

During his long tenure in what he called the “coloniser’s institutions”, Hale said that he tried to educate both the Navajo and his colleagues in state and national government about the struggles and contributions of Native people.

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‘We have the numbers’

Hale has experienced his own loss at the hands of the police. In 1952, when he was a toddler, his father was arrested by police in Gallup, New Mexico, another border town. He was missing for several days.

“My mother didn’t even know where he was,” he says. “Then they found him in the morgue.”

Hale believes his father was beaten to death by police while in custody, although this was never confirmed.  

Hale’s mother “was left to struggle, to find ways to support the family” and raise four children.

He empathises with Tsingine’s child.

“Police violence doesn’t end with the victim. It extends out,” Hale says, and police “have to be made aware of that.”

The FBI announced a pilot programme in 2016 to track deadly use of force by law enforcement, but as of yet, no information is publicly available regarding the initiative.

Hale says institutional powers like the police must be educated about cultural differences and the economic and cultural importance of Native people.  

Benallie, on the other hand, believes a united approach between marginalised peoples – Latino, black and Native – must be employed to end oppression.

“We must unite to smash these structures that continue to murder us,” Benallie says. “We have the numbers, in the end, to make that a reality.”

Follow Creede Newton on Twitter: @creedenewton

Source: Al Jazeera