Police violence against Native Americans in Arizona

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We explore systemic violence in Arizona where the highest number of Native Americans were killed by police in 2016.

On a cool evening in March, a group of Navajo gathered in front of the police department in Winslow, Arizona, holding signs, carrying candles, and demanding justice.

It was March 27, one year since 27-year-old Navajo mother Loreal Tsingine was shot dead by Winslow police officer Austin Shipley.

Tsingine, was shot five times by Shipley on Easter Sunday, 2016, after allegedly shoplifting from a local Circle K shop.

Brandon Benallie, a Navajo member of the national council of The Red Nation, a countrywide organisation of Native and non-Native activists, teachers, students and community organisers that advocates for Native American rights was at the demonstration. He says that after Tsingine was killed in the afternoon, her body was left in the pavement until six the next morning.

“From a Native perspective, you have to take care of the memory of that person. Essentially, she’s supposed to be respectfully remembered before the sun sets,” Benallie says. “To leave her out there for over 12 hours as they waited for a coroner to arrive … it was extremely disheartening and disturbing that they allowed that to happen.”

For Benallie, Tsingine’s death, and the deaths of 23 other Native Americans at the hands of police in 2016, is “a sad affirmation that this racism and violence committed towards Native people is systemic”.

The convenience store where Loreal Tsingine allegedly shoplifted before she was shot dead by a police officer in 2016 [Creede Newton/Al Jazeera]

Rise in killings

Native Americans, who make up 5.2 million or 1.7 percent of the country’s population, are the only group that saw a rise in deaths due to police shootings, from 13 in 2015 to 24 in 2016, according to the Guardian’s The Counted.

In 2015, Native American deaths were measured as 5.49 per one million people. Blacks killed by police were 7.69 per million. Last year, the number for blacks was 6.66 per one million, while the number for Native Americans rose to 10.13 per million.

Every other racial group saw a decrease, including those whose race is listed as “other”.

“These numbers are so terrible,” Benallie says. “This isn’t the oppression Olympics. There’s no gold medal for who gets killed more by police. When you look at the Latino, black and Native communities, they’re all suffering.”

In 2016, six Native Americans were killed by police in southwest Arizona, the state that is home to the majority of the Navajo Nation and where the highest number of these killings occurred.

Benallie says the struggles of Native Americans must be viewed through the lens of “settler-colonialism”, likening their situation to that of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

The Navajo Nation is a 71,000 square kilometre semi-autonomous territory spanning three separate US states and essentially serving as a reservation, with “border towns” like Winslow and nearby Flagstaff lying on its edges. These border towns have served as guard stations to control the Navajo, Benallie says, with police as the “tools of the settler-colonial process”.

The Winslow Police Department officer who killed Tsingine had been an officer for three years and had a history of excessive force [Creede Newton/Al Jazeera]

Tsingine’s death

Of the six Native Americans killed by police in Arizona last year, Tsingine’s case was the most controversial. It sparked outrage in the Native community.

In Shipley’s bodycam footage, Tsingine can be seen brandishing a pair of scissors.

Ryanle Benally, a Winslow resident who saw Shipley fire, told the local daily newspaper, the Arizona Republic, that when the officer confronted Tsignine, he grabbed her and her “whole body flew over and slammed into the concrete”. He says he saw Shipley pin her to the ground with his knee and at that point thought she was going to be arrested.

“That should have been it,” he said.

Shipley began yelling, “Stop resisting!” Benally then thought the officer pulled out his taser.

“It wasn’t. It was a rapid fire, five times,” the witness said.

On April 5, 2016, candles, flowers and stuffed animals mark the site where Loreal Tsingine was shot and killed by Winslow, Arizona, police officer Austin Shipley on March 27 [AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca]

It was later revealed that Tsingine had a history of mental illness and previous altercations with the police.

Shipley also had a history of using excessive force and falsifying records, according to documents from the Arizona Republic’s investigation into his employment record.

Shipley had drawn his gun on suspects five times, his Taser four times – including once on a teenage girl with her back turned to him, and used physical force at least three times. He had been an officer for three years.

For Native and non-Native residents of Winslow, the revelation of Shipley’s employment history raised questions about whether he was qualified to be a police officer.

In July, Maricopa County lawyer Bill Montgomery announced that after a four-month internal investigation, Shipley had been cleared of any criminal conduct and wouldn’t be charged. In October, Shipley, who went on paid leave shortly after killing Tsingine, resigned after being presented with the results of a separate internal investigation.

Benallie and others question why there wasn’t enough evidence for charges, but enough to spur Shipley’s resignation.

Montgomery told Al Jazeera that the investigations varied greatly: “An internal affairs investigation and an employment decision do not have the same burdens of proof.”

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