After working his normal night shift, Tremayne Nez went home to sleep in his Flagstaff, Arizona, home. Two hours later, he was woken up by his seven-year-old nephew. That's when the police showed up and arrested him thinking he was someone else.
“I am afraid to be home now because, in my mind, they (police) could return,” said Nez, 25. “This was a very traumatic experience and it was so undeserving. I felt violated, disrespected, and vulnerable because of the severity of the situation.”
Nez is a patient safety attendant at the Flagstaff Medical Center, and didn’t know why he suddenly became part of a ‘round up’ conducted by the METRO Task Force: Operation Riptide. This operation consisted of a total of 43 cases, and Nez was one of 35 arrested.
The METRO task force monitors drug traffic in Coconino County, and worked in conjunction with the Flagstaff Police Department during the ‘round up’ on June 18.
According to a statement made by the police department, “both Mr. Nez and the true suspect go by the same name, are of the same race, both in their early 20’s, have similar physical build as well as similar facial features all factors which led to the mistaken identification and arrest of Mr. Nez.”
This confusion led officers to book Nez on June 18, and charged him with the sale of dangerous drugs. He was in custody for approximately 30 hours before family members paid $15,000 to release him on bond.
“I was surprised and shocked … I have never felt so helpless before,” said Nez. “I have experienced anxiety episodes that started because of this event.”
Nez’s attorney, Wendy White, executive director at the Southwest Center for Equal Justice, said that they are currently investigating the wrongful arrest. Following the investigation, they will consider filing a lawsuit against the police department; on the grounds of a wrongful arrest, defamation, violation of civil rights, and racial bias.
White also explained that the statement made by the police department is incorrect.
“He (Nez) does not go by Trey.” said White. “They are about the same age, with black hair. But racial bias does play a part, two young Native guys with similar features is jumping to conclusions in the identification process.”
The press release made by the police department also stated that both individuals had resided in the same apartment over the past few years. However, White said that Nez has changed his address about three times since he lived at the address the police referenced.
The ‘true’ suspect is also a Native American individual named Trey Store. He was found and arrested on June 29. Even though Native Americans are incarcerated at 38 percent higher rate than other racial groups, in Flagstaff, this specific type of arrest is uncommon.
“As a criminal defense attorney in Flagstaff, alcohol use or abuse, and aggravated assault are the usual charges made against Native Americans,” said White. “Then the minor offenses like fights and shoplifting.”
For this case, Nez and White are awaiting documents from the police department to thoroughly conduct their investigation. White said that depending on how quickly the police department releases the information requested, they will then consider filing a lawsuit.
Nez was released on June 19, but hasn’t returned to work since. After his arrest, he was placed on unpaid administrative leave. On Tuesday, he was approved to go back to work, but hasn’t been given a schedule.
“I do support the police in all they do, but there’s consequences for mistakes,” said Nez. “As citizens, if we make mistakes we go to jail. If officers make mistakes, then they have to have consequences, too.”
Tsanavi Spoonhunter, Northern Arapaho and Northern Paiute, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today. She is a Chips Quinn Fellow.