"The violence we are seeing is showing our officers are not only stretched thin, but they also are facing challenges with the vastness of the area," says a Navajo Nation legislator.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The first time Houston Largo faced deadly gunfire as a Navajo police officer, he and other tribal police had swarmed a patch of desert near the Chuska Mountains to pursue an armed domestic violence suspect.
The 40-mile chase that began near Shiprock, New Mexico, had crossed into Arizona, where the suspect armed with an assault rifle crashed his vehicle that March 2015 night and opened fire. One officer was killed and two were wounded, while Largo escaped injury and received a commendation for helping a fellow officer to safety.
On Sunday, Largo again faced gunfire — this time alone on a dark New Mexico road while en route to a domestic violence call on the eastern edge of the United States’ largest American Indian reservation. The 27-year-old was found critically wounded, on the ground bleeding about 50 yards from the vehicle he had stopped, sheriff’s officials said. He was flown to an Albuquerque hospital where he died.
“He embodied what we ask for from our officers right to the very end,” said Amber Kanazbah Crotty, a lawmaker on the Navajo Nation council. “The violence we are seeing is showing our officers are not only stretched thin, but they also are facing challenges with the vastness of the area.”
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The Navajo Nation covers 27,000 square miles in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah where tribal officers patrol the rural roads alone, Navajo Police Chief Phillip Francisco said. That can leave them without backup during a life-or-death situation, especially in circumstances where the nearest fellow officer is more than an hour away, he said.
Tribal jurisdictions across the West often cover sweeping, remote areas that are larger than some U.S. states, but with far fewer police.
“It’s just a fact of geography that creates all sorts of challenges as far as policing reservations,” said Tim Purdon, a former U.S. attorney for North Dakota and partner at the Minneapolis law firm Robins Kaplan. “The issue here is both officer safety and public safety.”
The FBI has released few details stemming from its investigation into the shooting, including what sparked it. But Largo’s death has renewed focus on the dangers that Indian Country’s remote landscapes can pose for officers both within the Navajo Nation’s chronically understaffed police department and on remote reservations from the Dakotas to the Southwest.
In Montana, there are fewer than 20 Bureau of Indian Affairs officers to serve the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, which spans an area of the Great Plains twice the size of Rhode Island, Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure said.
He called the situation “abysmal,” saying the reservation is likely in need of more than twice as many officers than it has.
A high volume of domestic violence calls adds another layer of danger for officers on many reservations. Such calls are statistically considered the most deadly for police.
More than half of Native American women and nearly half of men surveyed by the National Institute of Justice for a report released last year said they had experienced physical violence by a partner.
The Navajo Nation, home to more than 175,000 people, has fewer than 250 patrol officers and investigators. The officers responded to more than 4,600 domestic violence calls in 2015, the most recently available figures.
The last three fatal shootings of Navajo officers, including Largo, happened while responding to reports of domestic disputes. The others included Officer Alex Yazzie in March 2015 near Red Valley, Arizona, and Sgt. Darrell Cervandez Curley in Kaibeto, Arizona, in 2011.
“For the Navajo Nation, they work twice as hard and twice the area with half the staff,” Chief Francisco said.
He declined to comment directly on the facts of the case but said the area where Largo was shot Sunday is especially desolate, and the lack of cellphone service there has been a serious safety concern for authorities.
The town closest to the incident is Prewitt, New Mexico, a tiny, unincorporated community in McKinley County. The area is so remote, Francisco said, that sometimes officers’ radio transmissions will fail.
“You’ll look out and see a couple houses in different areas, but everything is so spread apart,” he said. “It can be overwhelming when you drive through.”
It remained unclear Wednesday whether another officer also had been called to the same domestic violence dispute as Largo.
A woman who came up on the scene used Largo’s radio to call for help, the county sheriff’s office said, and the first authorities to arrive found him with a bullet wound in the forehead.
It wasn’t yet known how much time elapsed between the shooting and when emergency responders arrived.
The Navajo Times obtained a report from the sheriff’s office, one of the law enforcement agencies that initially responded to the shooting, saying that when deputies arrived, the driver of the pickup truck that Largo had stopped on the county road was handcuffed to the steering wheel.
The driver provided information about the suspect, and authorities found him hiding on a ridge nearby.
The FBI has not commented on the report or the suspect, except to say that they had a suspect in custody Sunday.
“Our officers put themselves in highly volatile situations every day in addressing domestic violence situations,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said earlier this week in response to Largo’s death.
Last year, Begaye had asked U.S. House members to increase the Interior Department’s public safety budget for Indian Country, as he testified about how an officer shortage on his reservation was to blame for increasing response times to crimes.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs is responsible for providing law enforcement on reservations that don’t have their own police and provides federal funding for those that do.
On the Navajo Nation, there is roughly one officer for every 1,000 residents. The national average is double that rate.
Of the department’s officers, Largo — a nearly five-year veteran of the force — was an especially active and passionate officer, the police chief said.
His funeral service is set for 11 a.m. Thursday in Rehoboth, New Mexico.
This report is one of a series of stories from the CJ Project, an initiative to broaden the news coverage of criminal justice issues affecting New Mexico’s communities of color. Partners and collaborators in the project include the Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press, Asian American Journalists Association, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and National Council on Crime & Delinquency. Supporters include the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
This story has been corrected to show that the Minneapolis law firm Robins Kaplan was misspelled Kaplin.