FARMINGTON – At a recent public hearing, Leroy Light politely removed his white cowboy hat before addressing three Navajo Nation Human Rights Commissioners.
“Everybody needs to be served right,” the former Farmington school teacher proclaimed with a strong, boisterous voice. “It’s important to talk about human rights.”
Light then preceded to explain how the Farmington Police Department played a significant role in the death of his son, stating that police used excessive force after approaching him at a Main Street gas station.
“The police went extreme,” said Light. “When he was down, they started tasing and tasing and tasing him.”
Light continued, stating his son was able to flee the scene only to die in an automobile crash during a subsequent police chase.
“That’s how I lost my son,” Light said. “I hope that officer is happy for what he did.”
Light then bashed the local newspaper for its biased coverage of the incident.
“We don’t want to be called drunk Indians,” said Light, glaring at a local news reporter. “It hurts.”
Including several officers from the Farmington Police Department and New Mexico State Patrol, about 50 people, mainly Navajo residents, attended the public hearing at the Farmington Civic Center on Thursday, Feb. 5. Commissioners received nearly six hours of testimony from more than a dozen residents, including a retired Navajo police officer from Shiprock, N.M.
“I’d like law enforcement to know that we pay for their salaries,” said the retired officer. “They should give us a little respect.”
Other Navajo citizens praised the Farmington Police Department, stating, “I have nothing bad to say about this community,” and, “The police are doing a good job.”
A couple of residents even blamed the Navajo Nation for its failure to provide economic opportunities and treatment services, which they said leads to increased confrontations with border town authorities.
“The Navajo Nation needs to look at themselves instead of blaming border towns,” said a man wearing a black cowboy hat.
Richard Lewis, a Vietnam veteran and former math professor at San Juan College, told commissioners that racism continued to remain in the border town of 45,000 people. He also announced his displeasure that both Navajo President Ben Shelly and Mayor Tommy Roberts were absent from the hearing.
“The key players are not here,” he said.
On the job for less than a year, Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe told commissioners that developing a close working partnership with the Navajo Nation was a top commitment.
“It’s impossible to not recognize the embryonic relationship we have with the Navajo,” said Hebbe. “I know there are things that we can do better.”
One Navajo man said he was thankful for the commissioners; citing issues of police misconduct should be addressed before Farmington ended up in the national spotlight.
“We’re lucky that it hasn’t gotten out of hand,” the man said.
Terry, a homeless man, said city police routinely mistreated him and other inebriated Navajo citizens. Now sober, he added that he has recognized the need to advocate for his brothers on the street.
“What happened to protect and serve?” he posed. “Here, it’s the opposite.”
One of the last speakers to address commissioners said it was a well-established fact that local police had abused Navajo citizens. He added he didn’t have much faith that any benefit would arise from additional cultural sensitivity training for police.
“Law enforcement should recognize our people as human beings,” the man said. “What’s called for here is humanity.”
The man continued, stating that police undergo rigorous training, including discipline and self-restraint, citing that law enforcement officials needed to reassess their point of view and be tolerant professionals.
“Our officers need to be the shining example of tolerance,” the man concluded.
The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission has held a series of public hearings in Navajo Nation border towns, including one in Cortez, aimed to access the treatment of its citizens by law enforcement officials. It remains unclear when commissioners will release a final report from the hearings.