The Most Dangerous Call: Domestic Violence on the Navajo Nation

Alysa Landry / Senior Officer Calvin Brown discusses his experiences responding to domestic violence calls as he patrols a 5,000-square-mile segment of the Navajo Nation.

The Most Dangerous Call: Domestic Violence on the Navajo Nation

From the driver’s seat of his Chevy Police Tahoe, Senior Officer Calvin Brown points out homes where he has responded to domestic violence calls.

Even years afterward, he still remembers details of the calls: the raw facts relayed to him by dispatchers; the sense of urgency; the adrenaline pumping through his veins. And the unforeseen challenges: muddy roads, unmarked homes and vague directions that can add minutes or even hours to response times.

In January, ICTMN participated in a ride-along with Brown while he was on duty. During his patrol shift, he recalled specific instances of domestic violence, pointing out locations as he drove.

He remembers the colors of the houses, the feel of wood on his knuckles as he rapped on the doors, the uncertainty that accompanies any domestic violence situation. And he remembers what he found inside: battered women, children cowering in corners, perpetrators with weapons.

“If it’s a domestic violence call, I try to play it out in my head before going in,” he said. “I ask all the ‘what ifs.’ I scan the area and try to plan for anything.”

An officer in the Window Rock, Arizona, district of the Navajo Nation Police Department, Brown patrols the I-40 corridor and a sprinkling of communities on the southern border of the reservation. With 12 years of experience as a tribal police officer, Brown has seen a little of everything, from routine traffic stops to homicides.

Because I-40 cuts across the reservation in Arizona, Navajo police officers share jurisdiction over motorists with state and county police officers and the Arizona Highway Patrol. The road is a major crime corridor, and Brown has encountered motorists transporting drugs, weapons and cash, or involved in sex trafficking.

But even those calls pale in comparison with domestic violence, he said.

“Domestic violence calls are the most dangerous because you never know what’s going on,” he said. “Family members show up and start yelling. There’s usually alcohol involved. As an officer, you’re quickly outnumbered.”

Brown estimates about 30 percent of his calls are domestic issues. Even routine calls can escalate into violence, he said.

And too often, staff shortages in police districts across the 27,000-square-mile reservation mean officers walk into domestic violence situations alone – with little hope of immediate backup assistance. The Window Rock district alone is 5,000 square miles, and only three four officers are on duty at any given time.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid,” Brown said. “Domestics take priority over almost every other call, and they try not to send us alone. But if there are only two or three officers on the shift, we have no choice but to go in alone.”

Even with backup, domestic situations can be risky, Brown said. He recalls arriving at a home where 15 people quickly became aggressive toward responding officers.

“From children to elders, they all came out of the house ready to fight,” he said.

The accounts are darker at the Division of Public Safety headquarters, a run-down, cinder block building surrounded by modular structures in the tribal capital of Window Rock. Inside, Harry Sombrero, supervisor of criminal investigations, shares stories about specific cases.

These are stories about men killing their wives in front of their children. Men stalking ex-girlfriends and slaughtering their children in fits of jealousy. Women beating their husbands with baseball bats or other weapons.

The details are gruesome and sobering, and they stick with investigators throughout their careers, Sombrero said. Criminal investigators are not patrol officers; they investigate felony crimes, including assault, kidnapping, manslaughter and homicide. For a domestic violence case to be forwarded to criminal investigations, it must involve serious injury or death – or a habitual offender.

“That usually means bashed-in heads or broken bones,” Sombrero said. “If the offender has a propensity toward violence, we make a case. We look at the man or woman involved. If they have two or more previous incidents, we file federal charges.”

Among the most violent – and heartbreaking – incidents are those involving spouses or other intimate partners, Sombrero said.

“Usually it’s been going on for a long time and escalating,” he said. “Usually one partner is acting out of jealousy and kills the other partner.”

At Public Safety headquarters, police activity often is presented in charts and graphs: the number of officers on duty; the percent of crimes considered violent; the frequency of arrests in a week, a month or a year.

In hard numbers, Navajo police respond to about 289,000 calls per year, and domestic violence accounts for as many as one third of all calls. But domestic violence is not about numbers; it’s about individual names, faces and circumstances, said Loretta Christensen, a trauma surgeon and clinical director of the Gallup Indian Medical Center, in Gallup, New Mexico

Alysa Landry / Navajo Police officers face a variety of on-the-job challenges, including vague directions and muddy roads, as they patrol the rural reservation.

“At the trauma center, we see a huge number of injured, assaulted or abused people,” she said. “It is quite distressing to see that kind of injury and know these people are being hurt by people they know. It’s quite shattering, really unimaginable.”

Medical professionals can treat physical injuries, Christensen said, but it’s much more challenging to address psychological or spiritual damage. Harder still to effect lasting change in a culture where violence is increasingly prevalent.

“I’m not sure we ever heal the spiritual part,” said Christensen, who estimates about 10 percent of all hospital visits stem from domestic violence. “The truly devastating part is that the abuse is ongoing. Domestic violence is a huge societal problem.”

The Gallup Indian Medical Center offers complete medical evaluations and treatment to people presenting with injuries or if doctors suspect abuse, Christensen said. Advocates are on hand to explain additional services, such as forensic exams, legal advice and welfare checks.

They also advise patients about the pros and cons of filing criminal complaints against their perpetrators, but the decision to alert law enforcement is almost always left to the victim.

More often than not, however, victims return to their abusers, Christensen said. Even when charges are filed, victims often recant their stories and reunite with their abusers.

“People feel like they have no choice but to go home,” she said. “Then the same people come back injured again.”

The stigma of domestic violence is just one of the many roadblocks to prosecuting abusers. The path to justice can be long and convoluted, and with tribal, state and federal policies working against each other, resolution can seem hopeless.

But hope comes with education and understanding, Officer Brown said. Along with his stories of devastating violence, he shares the triumphs of seeing women file orders for protection or abusers earnestly seeking help.

Brown believes the majority of people are good. Violence, he said, comes as individuals grind against historical mistreatment, and when families become overwhelmed by circumstances.

“When you go to people’s houses and see the living conditions, you understand why they have no hope,” he said. “These are human beings trying to make ends meet, but with no vehicles, no jobs, no assistance, everything just closes in on them and that’s when they get violent.”

This is part two of a three part series ICTMN is publishing this week.

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