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Navajo Nation leaders press DOJ to investigate fatal police shooting

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye speaks at a rally for Loreal Tsingine in Winslow, Arizona, on April 2, 2016. Photo from Navajo Nation OPVP / Facebook

Leaders of the Navajo Nation are pushing the Obama administration to investigate the fatal shooting of a tribal member by a police officer.

Loreal Juana Barnell Tsingine, 27, died on March 27 after being shot five times by an officer in Winslow, Arizona. Officially, the city has said the young mother and wife brandished a weapon -- a pair of scissors -- when she was stopped in connection with an alleged shoplifting incident.

But many on the reservation see something deeper. To tribal leaders and members, the shooting death highlights the bias they encounter in a border town near their homeland. Besides the countless Navajos who live and work in Winslow, many travel to the city to shop and spend their hard-earned money.

“They need to know that Navajo dollars are holding up the economy of the border towns," President Russell Begaye said a rally in Winslow last Saturday. "The border towns need to understand and respect this. We deserve better service and respect in these border towns.”

Loreal Tsingine, 1989-2016. Photo from GoFundMe

The officer who pulled the trigger has been placed on leave and the Arizona Department of Public Safety is investigating the shooting. But Begaye and other leaders want the Department of Justice to determine whether the incident represents a pattern of mistreatment.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates called on the Obama administration to investigate "longstanding and deep seated concerns of unlawful police stops, use of excessive force, and other coercive activities of Navajos by the Winslow Police Department."

"Our Nation's peoples have lived with questionable border town law enforcement directed at Native People for many generations," Bates wrote on Thursday. Begaye sent a similar letter on Wednesday.

Federal scrutiny would not be unprecedented. After John T. Williams, a Native man from Canada, was shot and killed by a police officer in Seattle, Washington, in 2010, DOJ's Civil Rights Division opened an investigation and found that the police department there "engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law."

Family and friends carried a photo of Loreal Tsingine through the streets of Winslow, Arizona, on April 2, 2016. Photo from Navajo Nation OPVP / Facebook

Similar probes have been directed at law enforcement in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of officer shootings in those communities. But none have addressed discrimination against Native people in border towns like Winslow.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Native Americans represent 25.7 percent of the population in the city. It's less than 30 miles from the southern border of the reservation and Navajo citizens have long complained of discrimination there.

After the shooting, Shundeen Smith, an aunt of Tsingine, said "this needs to get attention of what's happening on the border towns of the Navajo Nation," in a post on Facebook.

"This shouldn't be swept under no rug," Smith said. "No not this time."

The shooting death of Loreal Tsingine on March 27, 2016, started with a call of an alleged shoplifting from a Circle K in Winslow, Arizona. Image from Google Maps

Tsingine was laid to rest on the reservation on Tuesday. According to The Arizona Republic, the funeral drew a large crowd to the Cedar Springs Nazarene Church. The Navajo Hopi Honor Riders carried the casket into the church and the husband and daughter Tsingine left behind attended the service, the paper reported.

The paper followed up with a another story on Friday that included an eyewitness account of the shooting. Ryanle Benally, who said he was inside the store when the alleged shoplifting occurred, told the paper that Winslow police refused to take his statement and that he waited five days to be contacted by the state's Department of Public Safety.

“I was so upset. I started shouting,” Benally, who also is Navajo, told the paper. “They shot her and they wouldn’t let me help."

Benally's stepson, who is 17, witnessed the shooting, the paper reported. The Department of Public Safety wants to interview him but his mother said he was reluctant to talk.

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