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Police officer cleared for fatal shooting of Navajo Nation woman

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 expressed outrage on Friday after a police officer was cleared for shooting and killing a 27-year-old tribal member.

Loreal Juana Barnell Tsingine was killed on March 27 in Winslow, Arizona, a community near the reservation. The shooting sparked widespread condemnation but authorities said officer Austin Shipley won't face any criminal charges for his conduct.

"After a careful review of the facts surrounding this case, including available video evidence and witness statements from all involved, my office has found no evidence of criminal conduct on the part of officer Shipley," Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said in a press release.

The lack of action is fueling calls for an investigation by the Department of Justice. Navajo leaders believe the shooting represents the latest in a long history of discrimination against their people, thousands of whom live in Winslow or travel there frequently for their jobs and to spend their money.

“There is clearly something wrong when an officer who is over six-feet tall and well over 200 pounds uses deadly force on a person who weighed less than 100 pounds.” Speaker LoRenzo Bates of the Navajo Nation Council said in a press release. “Why did officer Shipley feel it was necessary to shoot Loreal repeatedly? That is a question that must be answered and the Navajo Nation will not rest until the federal government investigates.”

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."

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.

"My niece didn't deserve to be slammed to the ground by a man who is racist, shouldn't have been on the force, who had issues with the community," Shundeen Smith, an aunt of Tsingine, wrote on Facebook after learning that no charges would be filed.

"I still feel like a federal investigation needs to be done," she added.

Native Americans are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than any other racial or ethnic group. Image from Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police officers than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. The group's 2014 report laid out the harsh statistics but recent shootings of African American men and women and, in some cases, boys and girls, have drawn more national political and media attention. At the Democratic National Convention, six mothers of African Americans who were killed will speak on Tuesday after former president Bill Clinton takes the stage.

The family of Loreal Tsingine, who was a mother, has filed a $10.5 million notice of claim against the city of Winslow in connection with the shooting. It holds the city responsible for Tsingine's death because "it was negligent in hiring, training, retaining, controlling and supervising Austin Shipley."

According to documents posted by KPNX-TV, a superior warned in 2013 that someone might get "hurt" unless Shipley changed his on-duty behaviors. He was was quick to place his hand on his service weapon and he believed his badge gave him the authority to harass and belittle residents, another superior said.

The concerns about Shipley's behaviors even led a corporal to recommend that he not be kept on the force. He has been disciplined twice in the past three years, the Associated Press reported. One of those incidents stemmed from his treatment of a 15-year-old girl, the AP said. A second involved his use of a stun gun on another teenage girl.

KPNX obtained video that shows Shipley punching an adult man in the face in January 2015. A superintendent questioned Shipley's actions, the station reported, but it's not clear if he faced any discipline.

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Concerns raised about officer who shot and killed Navajo woman (04/21)
Navajo Nation leaders press DOJ to investigate fatal police shooting (04/08)
Navajo Nation woman shot and killed by police officer in Arizona (03/30)