On March 27 a white male police officer shot and killed a 27-year-old Navajo woman, Loreal Tsingine, in Winslow, Arizona. Over a month later, the community is still demanding an investigation into the killing; they say it is symptomatic of an entrenched pattern of police violence against Native residents in towns that border the 27,000-square mile Navajo Nation, a territory that extends into Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.
Tsingine, the mother of a 9-year-old girl, died on Easter Sunday after Officer Austin Shipley, responding to a complaint of shoplifting at a local convenience store, shot the woman five times when she allegedly brandished a pair of scissors. The office apparently perceived them as a “substantial threat” to his safety, according to a press statement issued by the Office of the President of the Navajo Nation.
Eyewitnesses to the killing claim the officer shot Tsingine while she was handcuffed on the ground, according to local news reports. Later, as she was twitching and gasping for air, the officer refused to perform CPR on her, and prevented concerned bystanders from doing the same, one eyewitness told the Arizona Republic. Shipley is currently on paid administrative leave.
The following Monday, Tsingine’s family gathered with Native advocates and Black Lives Matter activists for a vigil outside the Winslow Police Department. Their list of demands included an independent review of the murder and a thorough investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into Arizona’s systematic racial profiling of Native residents.
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Andrew Curley, a member of the Red Nation collective, which spearheaded the protests, told Rewire in a phone interview that Tsingine’s family is still in the dark as to whether, or how, the officer who shot her will be held accountable. Family members recently gathered with the local community to reaffirm their demands, including a call for financial compensation, but state officials have yet to respond.
“Immediately after her death, the case was transferred out of Winslow to the Arizona Department of Public Safety (ADPS) in Phoenix, which means the community can no longer take their grievances directly to the Winslow police,” Curley told Rewire. “Erecting such geographic barriers to justice is a common tactic used by the police, part of their efforts to discredit the victims of police violence and create a bureaucratic maze in which time slows down and the community loses focus.”
“Over time things become more opaque,” he went on, “and this is how institutions like the police force protect their own members. For us as a community, it means we have no trust in the process, no guarantee that the department investigating itself will be free of bias.”
Eileen Luna-Firebaugh, an associate professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, agrees.
“Police officers are performing a public job, they are being paid with public funds and they have a responsibility to the public—they need to know that the light of public scrutiny is on them,” she said in a phone interview with Rewire. “I firmly believe that the investigation of an incident [like this one] should not be done by the sheriff’s department or any law enforcement agency but by a civilian agency that’s part of the city, that has access to all relevant police records, and that can compel testimony.”
“If an investigation is carried out by an impartial third party and not by the police department itself, then the community is more likely to believe its conclusions,” Luna-Firebaugh said.
Currently, advocates say, there is little to no trust between border town residents and law enforcement personnel, an unsurprising reality given the rate of racial profiling that reportedly occurs on the outskirts of the vast Navajo Nation, particularly in towns like Gallup and Albuquerque in New Mexico, Cortez in Colorado, and Flagstaff and Winslow in Arizona.
In 2008 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona analyzed hundreds of thousands of records pertaining to highway stops, searches, and arrests and concluded that Native Americans who were stopped by ADPS officers were over three times more likely than white drivers to be subsequently detained or searched.
The ACLU’s report stated that these disproportionate search rates were “not justified by higher contraband seizure rates.”
More recently, the Flagstaff Police Department’s annual report for 2014 found that Native Americans comprised 45 percent of all arrests made that year, despite accounting for just over 11 percent of the town’s roughly 52,000 residents, 80 percent of whom are white.
For Curley, who has been stopped multiple times on the highway for such minor violations as a cracked windshield or the use of a GPS, racial profiling is only the first step in a much more insidious process—the murder of Native residents by law enforcement personnel.
Data from the Center on Criminal and Juvenile Justice suggests that Native Americans, who comprise 0.8 percent of the country’s population but account for 1.9 percent of police killings, are more likely to be killed by police officers than any other racial or ethnic group, including Black people.
“Think about how we get to that scenario: We get there through stops and arrests,” Curley said. “That is when the state is more likely to use its authority, its violence, against Black and brown and Native bodies. Once we’re arrested, we’re more likely than white people to have a violent encounter with the police—this is when their perceived fear of us, their paranoia, comes to the fore. This is when they see a pair of scissors and claim their lives are in danger.”
For Melanie Yazzie, a founding member of the Red Nation who is currently working toward a PhD in American Studies at the University of New Mexico, paranoia among law enforcement is a natural byproduct of unfinished settler colonialism.
“The mandate of white settlements in border spaces has always been to contain and manage the threat of Native existence,” she told Rewire in a phone interview. “White populations in these spaces largely embrace patriotic values of American nationalism and exceptionalism, which are absolutely essential to maintaining U.S. capitalism and imperialism.”
“But these towns lie adjacent to a huge Native nation—we call the Navajo Nation the Sleeping Giant—and are home to large populations of Native people who, by definition, were supposed to have been eliminated, exterminated, long ago with the creation of the nation state we call the United States of America.”
“The fact that we are literally everywhere,” Yazzie went on, “that we continue to exist, to have political authority, explains why certain technologies of state control and violence are so extreme in these spaces.”
She said for Officer Shipley—who, according to local media reports, already had a documented history of using force against civilians—to “execute a 100-pound Native woman” in the middle of the day at point-blank range is “disgusting but entirely consistent” with patterns of violence against Native residents in border towns.
As statistics have shown, this violence is not limited to state actors but extends in a continuum that includes vigilante violence and hate crimes, Yazzie added. She pointed to the twin murders in Albuquerque in 2014 of Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson, two homeless Navajo men who were beaten to death in their sleep, as a particularly stark reminder of the threat Native people face, from multiple fronts, on a daily basis.
While Tsingine’s death has rightly stoked fear and outrage within the community, it has also reignited a fervent quest for justice. As Jorge Rivas reported for Fusion last month, Tsingine’s murder prompted Albert Hale, a member of the Arizona State Legislature’s Native American Caucus, to pen a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, urging the Department of Justice to “address the community’s longstanding and deep-seated concerns about systemic misconduct toward Native Americans” and initiate an investigation of the Winslow Police Department.
For advocates like Yazzie, there is a long and messy road ahead.
“The question we often ask ourselves as members of the Red Nation is, ‘What does justice look like, really?’” she explained to Rewire. On the one hand, advocates are wary of seeking answers in a system of mass incarceration but on the other, they are aware that families of the victims—many of them further marginalized by poverty—often do not feel safe while perpetrators walk the streets.
“The climate of fear in Winslow right now is incredibly high—people have said that if Shipley is not found guilty, if he is not locked up for murder, they are just going to move away rather than live in constant fear of being his next victim,” Yazzie said.
She said her collective is working closely with Tsingine’s family, as well as with members of Black Lives Matter, to find new frameworks of self-determination and justice.
“In some ways this is a conversation that is just beginning, at least in places like Winslow,” she said. “We had over 300 people at our first vigil, people who were speaking powerfully, who didn’t want to be silent anymore, and that to me was really important. We are demanding justice, we are thinking deeply about what it means, and we are moving forward,” she said.