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Navajo Nation/San Juan County, NM Law Enforcement Tension

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Law enforcement in San Juan County, New Mexico is challenging. The county is big – more than 5,000 square miles. Much of it, 65 percent, lies within the Navajo and Ute Mountain Reservations. Another 25 percent belongs to the United States government. The State of New Mexico owns 3.55 percent and the remaining 6.5 percent is privately owned.

It is often difficult for law enforcement officials to determine who has jurisdiction. This uncertainty has caused tension between the Navajo Nation Police Department and the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, says Sheriff Ken Christesen. Navajo Nation Police Crownpoint District Captain Steven Nelson agrees.

“The checkerboard jurisdiction creates the majority of issues along Highway 550 with about 10 miles of that resting in Navajo Nation jurisdiction. San Juan County has been making efforts to identify jurisdictions, and the Navajo Nation has provided maps. How precise they are, I can’t say,” Nelson told Indian Country Today Media Network.

Sheriff Christesen would like cross-deputization of his officers and those from the Navajo Nation so that no matter who responds to an emergency call, the officer would have jurisdiction. “But I’ve been unwilling to do that, because the Navajo Nation doesn’t have any laws on the books for DUI, for example. They’ll just use public intoxication, and let the drivers go. Drivers aren’t required to have insurance or registration on the reservation. I can’t justify sending my deputies and going to court when they have to travel, if the case really can’t be made,” he said in an interview with ICTMN.

A particular source of contention between the two departments is the perception that a substation 35 miles south of Bloomfield, New Mexico, built by the County and turned over to the Navajo Nation for operation and staffing in 2010, has remained empty. But that was never the case, says Nelson, of the building, which is not located on the reservation.

“As far as I’m aware, we have personnel. But they don’t sit in the office, they work out of it. Because of the large area they cover, they are mobile. When doing reports or making arrests, they use the station. Two officers work out of there. We have a criminal investigator there most of the time, too,” says Nelson, of the officers who rotate into the substation from the Crownpoint District office.

Lack of budget set aside for the substation area has also contributed to the perceived lack of Navajo presence there. “We’ve been taking bits and pieces from the Crownpoint office to maintain the sub office. We don’t have a set budget for that particular area. We’re presenting a request to the Navajo Nation council now to see if we can establish a budget,” continues Nelson.

Sheriff Christesen feels that right now, with police limited presence, the people who live in the area served by the substation are not receiving adequate law enforcement, citing his department’s response to more than 1,000 calls for service each year in that area. “Those people deserve quality law enforcement. I think the Navajo people are very upset, as they should be, south of Bloomfield. They were promised law enforcement and a substation but there’s no full time presence there.”