The towering Chuska Mountains cut a green line through the lonely landscape of the surrounding desert, a spine of vegetation that divides the Navajo Nation along the Arizona-New Mexico border.
Nestled at the base of the pink-flushed mountains, in a basin of high-desert brush beneath an impossible sky, is Red Valley, Arizona, a quiet community of less than 200 people. It was here, in the dark of night on March 19, that a manhunt involving 30 Navajo police officers ended in a shootout that left one officer dead and two others injured.
The incident started with a domestic violence call at about 2:15 p.m. Officers from Shiprock, New Mexico, responded to reports that Justin Fowler was beating his wife and mother with a pistol in nearby Little Water, New Mexico. When an officer arrived on the scene, Fowler discharged his weapon, an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, and the officer took cover.
Six hours after the initial call, Fowler, 24, returned to taunt officers who had set up a mobile command unit, launching a chase along darkened highways and across the state line to Red Valley. Somewhere in the shadows of the desert, Fowler abandoned his vehicle and began shooting at officers.
In the ensuing firefight, Fowler was fatally wounded, but not before he shot and killed Alex Yazzie and injured two other officers.
Yazzie, a 42-year-old Marine Corps veteran who had worked in law enforcement on the Navajo Nation for 14 years, was laid to rest March 27. He leaves behind a wife and four children.
In a statement, Navajo President Ben Shelly ordered flags to be flown at half-staff for several days. In areas across the Southwest, residents kept blue porch lights burning all night to commemorate Yazzie’s service.
“The Navajo Nation mourns the loss of Alex Yazzie, a dedicated Navajo Police officer that gave his life in the line of duty to protect the lives of others,” Shelly said in his statement. “We are deeply saddened over his sudden departure.”
Officers Herbert Frazier and James Hale, both shot in the leg during the incident, were transported to hospitals for treatment.
This was the third shooting of Navajo police officers in recent years, and the second in just five months. In June 2011, Sgt. Darrell Curley was shot and killed while responding to a domestic violence call; and in October 2014, Officer Joseph Gregg was shot in the face – also during a domestic dispute.
Gregg is recuperating after enduring several surgeries. His shooter, Raymond Herder, is scheduled to go on trial in June on charges of assault with intent to commit murder and discharging a firearm during a violent crime.
At 27,000 square miles, or roughly the size of West Virginia, the Navajo Nation is the country’s largest American Indian reservation. Its territory stretches into 17 counties in three states, and through three distinct climate zones, offering breathtaking mountain vistas and stark desert terrain.
The Navajo, a peaceful, sheepherding people with no traditional claim to vengeance, are well acquainted with hardship. The sprawling, rural reservation is peppered with ramshackle homes where people live off the grid, without running water or electricity, and separated by great distances from their nearest neighbors – and from law enforcement.
It’s a scenario ripe for storytelling. Legendary novelist Tony Hillerman penned 18 books starring fictional Navajo police officers Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, who tackle the very real challenges of cultural clashes and unforgiving topography. In 2012, the National Geographic Channel aired the reality show “Navajo Cops,” which follows police officers on the job – and into situations involving fighting, drugs, trafficking and even reports of supernatural beings.
Yet danger is certainly not limited to 45-minute television segments or fictional plots. Real Navajo police officers endure grueling schedules, outdated technology, baffling jurisdictional boundaries and gridlocks over authority – all this on land plagued with crippling poverty, high levels of alcohol and drug use, homelessness and a legacy of unresolved trauma.
Officers also face increasing crime rates, including violent crime, while the police force itself remains severely understaffed. According to the most current data from the Navajo Division of Public Safety, all seven police districts are operating with less than half the necessary manpower – and less than one-third the national average for its population.
The national average is three officers per 1,000 people. On the Navajo Nation, home to about 170,000 people, that number ranges from a low .6 officers per 1,000 people in the Tuba City, Arizona, district to 1.04 officers per 1,000 people in Crownpoint, New Mexico.
Division-wide, there is a deficit of more than 300 officers, said John Billison, executive director of Public Safety. About 200 full-time commissioned peace officers patrol the reservation, not counting criminal investigators, corrections officers or civilian employees. That means only three or four commissioned officers are on duty at any given time in each district, or a total of 28 on the entire reservation.
“We have a big territory,” Billison said. “Our geography is huge, and with a shortage of staff, heightened incidents become even more dangerous.”
The average response time is about 20 minutes, Chief of Police Bobby Etcitty said. But backup can be a different story. At times, depending on volume of calls or distance between officers, it can take hours for backup to arrive.
Etcitty, who oversees the entire Navajo Police Department, said the Nation needs to double the manpower just to provide minimum services. An even bigger police force would allow for a special domestic violence task force.
But with an estimated $10 million budget shortfall in the Division of Public Safety, a beefed-up police force is not feasible, Etcitty said. With the exception of new recruits, all officers work alone, patrolling endless miles of highway and dirt roads. Last year alone, officers logged more than 6 million miles on their vehicles.
“At this point, all officers are alone,” Etcitty said. “For safety reasons, we should have two officers in a car, especially in the evenings, but this is a risk we take.”
The risk increases exponentially with domestic violence calls, said Denise Billy, one of few female police officers on the Nation. A 16-year veteran of the police force, Billy said she knows from experience that domestic disagreements can escalate to dangerous proportions.
“You hear stories of officers getting hurt,” she said. “It makes you realize that you have to keep on your toes all the time.”
Officers from all over the Four Corners area attended the funeral and memorial service March 27 for Alex Yazzie. Among them were some of the Navajo Nation’s bravest men and women: the law enforcement professionals who put their lives on the line to protect others in one of the most dangerous areas in the country.
Like his colleagues on the force, Yazzie understood the dangers of police work on an American Indian reservation. Yet he served voluntarily, allowing the daily hazards to bind him not only to his fellow officers, but also to the culture of this place, the people he served and, ultimately, to the rugged land itself.
This is the first in a three part series ICTMN will be publishing over the coming week.