PD chief: Domestic violence 'dominant'

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, May 5, 2011

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Domestic violence on the Navajo Reservation is "very dominant," acting Navajo Nation Police Chief Harry Sombrero told U.S. attorneys from Arizona, New Mexico and Utah on April 26.

Sombrero emphasized that in the domestic violence cases he's handled, the perpetrators went on to kill their victims about three years after first threatening them with death. The perpetrators in these cases were male - boyfriends, husbands or ex-husbands, he said.

He and the U.S. attorneys met at the Navajo Nation Museum to discuss how they can improve their efforts to make life safer for tribal members.

Last year tribal police responded to 4,851 domestic violence calls, according to the Division of Public Safety statistics. The number was even higher in the previous three years, peaking at over 6,700 in 2007.

Sombrero noted that domestic violence is related to other crimes, such as drunkenness.

He presented a chart that summarized four years of calls to the reservation's seven police districts, from 2006 to 2010. The department gets over 30,000 calls a year reporting drunkenness, many times more than for any other reason.

About 5 percent of domestic violence and child abuse cases meet the guidelines for federal prosecution, said Tuba City Police District Criminal Investigator Greg Secatero, who has been working with the FBI to gather data on the Navajo Reservation's domestic violence and child abuse cases.

Secatero said he and MacDonald Rominger, supervisor of the FBI's Gallup office, expect to submit their findings to the U.S. Justice Department in about a month.

Rominger said the federal government recently established a law aimed at repeat offenders. Similar to other "three strikes" laws, the statute enables federal prosecution of individuals who have two prior convictions for domestic violence in tribal courts.

A third-time offender can now be charged as a habitual offender, a felony, and face up to five years in prison, he explained, adding that two people, both from Arizona, have been charged and convicted under the statute.

He said the goal of federal and tribal authorities is to work with tribal criminal investigators and prosecutors across the Navajo Reservation "to ferret out" individuals repeatedly arrested for battery related to domestic violence and charge them in federal court.

U.S. District Courts in Utah have already ruled that prior tribal convictions count towards the prosecution of tribal members as federal habitual domestic violence offenders, Rominger said.

Secatero noted that the Navajo Nation has no domestic violence criminal code, which makes it harder to prosecute someone as a habitual domestic violence offender. It has also hampered efforts to gather data on domestic violence here, he said.

Navajo Nation Chief Prosecutor Bernadine Martin, who presented a report on extradition at the meeting, recounted the history of efforts to make domestic violence a crime under tribal law.

Martin recalled that she, other prosecutors, representatives from the tribal social services division, and "whoever else was interested" met and drafted legislation to include domestic violence in the code.

It's "very comprehensive" and even addresses spousal rape - when one married partner forces the other into sex, she said.

Martin said the proposed domestic violence criminal code was on the agenda for consideration by the last Navajo Nation Council at its final meeting, but then the Council lost its quorum, ending the opportunity to act on it.

The bill is headed to the new Council now, she said, and she hopes they pass it.

Criminalizing domestic violence on the reservation would make it easier to track the offenders and prosecute them under the federal repeat offender law, which would protect the victims, who are primarily women, Martin said.

Rominger said that until the Council approves the change, tribal police should charge domestic violence offenders with aggravated assault.

Secatero noted, however, that their data review found that many aggravated assault cases are dismissed.

Sombrero reported that tribal police responded to 452 calls about aggravated assault in 2010 but that for unknown reasons, only 28 were referred to criminal investigations for eventual prosecution.

Of 334 forcible rape calls, only 43 went to the criminal investigators, he said.

Sombrero said he plans to look into those cases to determine why the referral rate is so low.

Rominger added that in their review of domestic violence cases on and off the reservation, he noticed that states often fail to ask for the extradition of tribal members facing state domestic violence charges.

The states can't prosecute these offenders if they don't extradite them from tribal land, which retards the overall effort to put repeat offenders where they can't do more harm, he said.

Rominger urged state and county prosecutors to be "vigilant" in prosecuting misdemeanor domestic violence cases, as do tribal prosecutors.

Secatero added that the domestic violence data collected so far also showed that Navajo Nation police lack a protocol - a set of guidelines - for handling domestic violence cases. Having a protocol would "streamline" the identification and prosecution of these cases, and ensure victims get the follow-up help they need, he said.

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