Cross-Commission Agreement between Navajo Nation and McKinley County goes forward

WINDOW ROCK - The Public Safety Committee (PSC) continues to make great strides in improving services on the Navajo Nation. With a very limited police force of 343 commissioned personnel, public safety is stretched too thin to accommodate the 27,000 square-mile Navajo reservation.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Edmund Yazzie (Thoreau), PSC vice chair was therefore pleased to know that the recent Cross-Commission Agreement between the Navajo Nation and the McKinley County Sheriff's Office will finally move forward. This agreement has been long awaited by the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico.

The agreement has been in the works for nearly seven years and was recently modified to meet the critical needs of the Navajo Nation in McKinley County to combat crime on the Navajo Nation. Statistically, crimes on Indian reservations surpass the national average by two or three times, sometimes more.

The Eastern Navajo Agency is comprised of a checkerboard area, which creates a jurisdictional maze that hinders public safety. The lack of public safety in this area prompted the motion of this agreement. The agreement will deal with jurisdictional issues and will provide necessary services to communities in this area.

Per the agreement, Navajo Nation Public Safety and the McKinley County Sheriff's Office will coordinate to identify concerns in dealing with law enforcement issues.

This agreement was established to provide for the orderly, efficient, and effective enforcement of the criminal and traffic laws of the Navajo Nation and the State of New Mexico. The agreement will prevent the jurisdictions from becoming a sanctuary for the law violators and to prevent inter-jurisdictional flight of offenders. This is done all in recognition of the inherent sovereignty of the Navajo Nation and the State of New Mexico.

This agreement is certainly good news for public safety on the Navajo Nation, considering that the majority of the reservation is rural and law enforcement has to deal with challenges of being understaffed when faced with delivering services to the communities.

This landmark agreement will allow Navajo Nation police officers to arrest non-Indians while at the same time allowing the McKinley County Sheriff's Department the same privilege of making arrests on the reservation within the boundaries of their county. Before the agreement, the McKinley County Sheriff's Department could not come onto the reservation to make arrests and Navajo Police officers could not make any arrests off the reservation.

Pursuant to the agreement, all cross-commissioned officers and deputies shall have the powers necessary to enforce Navajo Nation or State of New Mexico criminal and traffic laws, including the power to make arrests for any violations as allowed by law. Both cooperating agencies will have full authority to coordinate arrests on and off the Navajo reservation.

The agreement was signed Dec. 17 by Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., McKinley County Sherriff Frank Gonzales, Navajo Nation Public Safety Director Sampson Cowboy and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

The PSC approved this agreement with a vote of 6-0 on June 26, 2007 and the Intergovernmental Relations Committee also approved this agreement by a vote of 9-0 on July 13.

Yazzie is pleased to know that the PSC has revived the efforts to move the agreement forward in order to increase law enforcement in parts of the Eastern Agency. Yazzie was a police officer for 15 years and knows the pressing challenges that the Navajo Nation faces each day to combat crime on the reservation.

This agreement benefits public safety in a huge way by alleviating the problem of the lack of manpower. If either a Navajo Nation or McKinley County officer needs backup at a scene in McKinley County, they will more than likely receive the necessary assistance with the recent passage of this agreement.

Yazzie added that the agreement is in its final stages and the next step would be to construct a game plan with the McKinley County Sheriff's department in which final plans will be put in place. Yazzie is awaiting a meeting with Public Safety Director Sampson Cowboy to put plans together to expedite the agreement.

Yazzie extended his gratitude to the PSC, Sherriff Gonzales, tribal court judges in Shiprock, N.M., Sampson Cowboy, Donovan Brown with the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, Crownpoint police captain Steve Nelson, and several Navajo Nation police officers, who have all shared their experiences to strengthen this proposal.

Public safety issues are not unique to the Navajo Nation, but are echoed in almost all reservations throughout the country. The lack of jail space and lack of officers tops a growing list of issues effecting Indian country today.

Native Americans and Alaska Native have the highest crime rates in the country, according to statistics provided by the federal government.

It is the hope of the Navajo Nation that this agreement be utilized as a model for additional agreements in counties bordering the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico.

"The implementation of the agreement was a challenge, but it is finally done and we are looking forward to working together to serve the communities on the New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation," Cowboy said. "I thank the Public Safety Committee and the McKinley County Sherriff's office for their work on this agreement."

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Hope MacDonald- Lonetree (Coalmine Canyon/To Nanees Dizi), Chair of the PSC, also expressed her gratitude to the people involved in pushing this agreement through the process. "This is a good thing and I look forward to a successful joint relationship between our department and the McKinley County Sheriff's Office."

MacDonald-Lonetree explained that this agreement is open for amendments and if things do not work out as smoothly as expected, the Navajo Nation can always revisit the agreement again.

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