Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

San Juan Sheriff Seeks Agreement with Navajo Police

<i>Photo: Alicia Geesman</i>
San Juan County, Utah, Sheriff Rick Eldredge

By Dan Bammes

Salt Lake City, UT – The Navajo Nation has 275 police officers to cover more than 27,000 square miles - an area the size of West Virginia. As a sovereign nation, it has jurisdiction on its own land. But the reservation also covers seven counties in three states, and the local authorities have been talking for years about cross-deputizing their officers to operate legally on the reservation.

Rick Eldredge has been San Juan County Sheriff for less than a year. He was elected to the position in 2010, in part with support from the Navajo residents of San Juan County, who make up about half the population. Eldredge says cross-deputizing his officers with the Navajo Nation Police is a top priority. "See, right now, Navajo police are not able to arrest anybody who's non-Native American on the reservation. It is handled by, such as myself, local jurisdictions if they commit a crime down on the reservation. They want the power to be able to arrest those people and that's fine by me."

In the past, the San Juan County Sheriff was lukewarm on the question of cross-deputization. A previous attempt failed because of a dispute over driving county vehicles out of state. But County Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy is glad to see a change that would help Navajo police address some of the difficult social problems on the reservation. "The social impacts, the violence, drugs, y'know . . . not to mention the accidents that do happen in the San Juan County. It is a priority."

Maryboy is also a delegate to the Navajo Nation Council, the only one from Utah. While there seems to be enough support in the tribal council to move the plan ahead, it's not unanimous. Delegate Russell Begaye is from Shiprock, in San Juan County, New Mexico, just across the Four Corners from Utah. There hasn't been a formal agreement in the past, but he says there were occasions when the Navajo residents of his county felt sheriff's deputies overstepped their authority. "They remember the people, deputies, going out there and arresting Navajos on behalf of the city courts and county courts, bring them to the border of the reservation, and the city, county police would meet them and they would take them on to city jail."

Eventually, local deputies stopped coming on the reservation except for the most serious emergencies. The new sheriff of San Juan County, New Mexico, Ken Christesen, is in no hurry to try again. He says there has to be cooperation among the jails and courts, not just among first responders. "They don't share their DWI information with any other state or with anybody else," he says. "If you're on the reservation and you get a hundred DWI's, they don't share that information with the state of New Mexico or the state of Utah. I think it's important if we're going to fight this issue of DWI that every jurisdiction share that information."

Kenneth Maryboy, the commissioner from Utah's San Juan County, isn't buying into the tribal sovereignty objections. He says a cross-deputization agreement is needed now. "Working with the Navajo Nation and San Juan County to where we could have jurisdiction on both sides, that would be great. But the Navajo Nation is very, very sensitive about sovereign immunity. But they've been waiving their immunity for various organizations and various corporations for many years. And right now, when lives are in danger, they don't want to lift their sovereign immunity. To me that's down, out ridiculous."

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly says one possible way to resolve some of the legal issues is to authorize deputies to act officers of the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the authority of the federal government. "Maybe a federal commission might work, where we can go to the United States Department of Justice and work with that and if we can get some commission out of that by being federal commissioned, y'know, all the law enforcement that comes on the reservation can, the question of jurisdiction will go away."

Edmund Yazzie has seen the issue from both sides as a deputy sheriff in McKinley County, New Mexico. He now chairs the tribal council's Law and Order Committee. He says a federal commission has some advantages, but he thinks a local agreement between the tribe and the counties could be worked out much sooner . "To combat the problem right away for our people," he says,"the first step is the cross-commission with the state level. And if an individual needs to be charged, a federal charge, by FBI, at least the local departments have detained the subject and they can later decide if the federal charges will be pending.

San Juan County, Utah, Sheriff Rick Eldredge and the other sheriffs in the Four Corners region participated in a summit meeting in July with tribal leaders to talk about how to get the job done. That left Eldredge feeling optimistic about finalizing an agreement - possibly by the end of this year.

"The ball," he says,"right now it's in my court. I'm getting everything together and I'm going to take it back to Navajo DOJ and Navajo Department of Public Safety and present my plan and it's just gonna be a back-and-forth thing until we get it ironed out."

If he can make cross-deputization work, Eldredge is also planning to hire more deputies from the reservation and have them spend more time there. The goal would be stronger backup for officers from both jurisdictions and a safer home for the Navajo citizens who voted him into office.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.