Police violence against Native Americans in Arizona

Violence ‘doesn’t begin when someone dies’

Aside from his work in the Red Nation, Benallie helped form the group Bordertown Justice Coalition, which aims to end police violence against his community. The coalition also started the “Justice for Loreal” movement to support Tsingine’s family, with whom they work closely.

Benallie says that while representatives of the Winslow Police Department travelled to the Navajo Nation to speak with her family, there have been “no meaningful reconciliation efforts”.

He says Tsingine’s murder was not “a random act of violence against Native people”. Police violence, Benallie points out, “doesn’t begin when someone dies”.

Tina McGrath, 48, a Navajo, mother and resident of rural northern Arizona, agrees.

She says that she has endured 20 years of racial profiling and targeted policing. “I feel like [the police] are watching us,” she says. “They know us.”

One of the worst encounters occurred in 2013, she says, when her family was celebrating her husband’s birthday in Flagstaff.

Two employees of a local petrol station followed her son Perratin, who is in his mid-20s and suffers from schizophrenia, and daughter-in-law back to their hotel room after arguing with them at the petrol station. McGrath says the employees were drunk.

A fight ensued and someone at the hotel called the police. When they arrived, McGrath says that she tried to explain that the petrol station employees had instigated the trouble.

“But the police believed [the employees]. They took their story over ours,” she says.

When the police began to arrest Perratin, he tried to grab on to his father, and the police “jumped on both of them,” McGrath says.

“I thought they were going to kill them,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do.” Panicked, she approached the police and shouted for them to stop. She says one officer, Ryan Darr, pushed her and she “flew back”, landing in a seated position.

Documents provided by the Flagstaff Police Department (FPD) relating to this event and Darr’s employment record confirm much of McGrath’s account of the events.

“As we struggled on the ground I felt a pull on my arm … I could also see other family members closing in,” said Darr in the police report, explaining why he pushed McGrath.

The impact broke a screw in McGrath’s spinal fusion, which had been installed to connect two vertebral segments in order to stop pain in her lower back.

McGrath filed a complaint against Darr, citing use of excessive force.

In the police records regarding the complaint, investigating officer Lieutenant Lasiewicki wrote in his findings that Darr, “did push Tina. The amount of force he used was minimal and justified. Regarding the accusation of excessive force, Sgt Darr is exonerated.”

Of the few witnesses Lasiewicki was able to contact regarding the incident was one of the petrol station employees who had been arrested for assaulting the McGrath family. In the police report, the individual admits he had been drinking.

According to the FPD documents, Darr had received five commendations since 2008. The records also show three citizens’ complaints filed against him, including McGrath’s and another which alleged use of excessive force. Internal FPD investigations found them all to be “unfounded”. to be untrue.

Through Lasiewicki’s investigation, the city prosecutor instructed Darr to issue McGrath with a court summons for “resisting an officer”, a misdemeanour offence.

McGrath says she was never informed of the summons. After roughly a month she was stopped by a police officer for a traffic violation and arrested for missing her court date.

“I sat in jail five [for] days with a broken back. That’s how I found out I got charged,” McGrath says.

She was given another court date and ordered to complete community service.

As time went on, the spinal fusion began “bending,” McGrath says, due to the broken screw, causing her to use a wheelchair and suffer even greater pain.

“I went to court in a wheelchair. I did community service in a wheelchair.”

McGrath says the fusion remains unrepaired. She now walks with a cane. The pain reminds her “every day” of the assault. “I want to fight this,” she says. “I have rights.”

‘Astounding disparities’

Al Jazeera requested documents concerning the arrest records of both Winslow and Flagstaff police.

Although Native Americans account for 25 percent of Winslow’s population, they averaged nearly 64 percent of arrests from 2012 to 2015, according to police filings.

In nearby Flagstaff, public police reports from 2011 to 2015 show that Native Americans accounted for an average of 47 percent of arrests. US census data from 2010 says Native Americans account for 11.7 percent of the city’s population.

Al Jazeera presented these statistics to Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which, according to their website, aims to “secure equal justice for all through the rule of law”.

“These are truly astounding disparities. When we see disparities like this, often they’re attributable to some unlawful policy or practice such as racial profiling,” Clarke responds.

According to FPD Deputy Chief Dan Musselman, 56 percent of the Native Americans who have been arrested are repeat offenders and more than half of them don’t live there, but come from other towns or the nearby Navajo Nation.

Sergeant Cory Runge of the FPD said that “while the census for Coconino County/Flagstaff Metropolitan area indicates Native Americans account for 27 percent of the population”, these census numbers “may be a little misleading because it is estimated that 75 percent of every Navajo dollar is spent in border towns.”

The FPD’s relationship with the community is “variable and dependent on countless factors involved within each interaction,” Runge says.

Many Native Americans come to Flagstaff to do their shopping, according to Musselman and Runge.

McGrath agrees, saying that shops are scarce on Navajo lands, so many come to border towns to purchase goods.

Even so, “these are significant disparities, that warrant closer analysis,” Clarke says in reference to the arrest statistics. “It’s hard to believe there’s any explanation other than race being a factor. It certainly deserves an investigation.”

Albert Hale. a former Navajo president, says government institutions have been forced on Native Americans by ‘the colonisers’ [AP Photo/Ross D Franklin]

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