Justice Department to investigate fatal shooting of Navajo woman by police officer

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye appeared 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 welcoming a federal investigation into the shooting of one of their own by a non-Indian police officer.

Tribal leaders have been pushing for federal intervention ever since Loreal Juana Barnell Tsingine died on March 27 in Winslow, Arizona. The 27-year-old mother was shot and killed by officer Austin Shipley but state authorities last month cleared him of any wrongdoing, drawing further outrage about the treatment of Navajo citizens in a community near the reservation border.

Some of those concerns could now be addressed with the Department of Justice taking up the case. Tribal leaders remain hopeful that some of their questions will finally be answered.

"The Navajo Nation Council is elated that the United States Department of Justice has made the decision to review the investigation into the shooting death of Loreal Tsinigine at the hands of Officer Shipley,” Speaker LoRenzo Bates of the Navajo Nation Council said in a press release. “While Maricopa County may allow Officer Shipley to escape criminal prosecution, we are hopeful that a federal investigation will bring justice for the Tsinigine family."

The development marks only the second time in history that a fatal police officer shooting of a Native person is being reviewed by the Civil Rights Division at DOJ. The first came after John T. Williams, who was a First Nations citizen from Canada, was killed by a police officer in Seattle, Washington, in 2010.

The division's July 2012 complaint noted that Williams, who was well known in the urban Indian and local community as a traditional woodcarver, was shot within "seven seconds" of being confronted by a police officer. Williams was carrying a knife he used to make his arts at the time and was hard of hearing, a condition that also was familiar to the people who knew him.

The Seattle Police Department's "failure to supervise an inexperienced officer on how to make appropriate decisions about when to use deadly force, how to appreciate cultural traditions of Native Americans, and how to determine when to call for supervisory assistance, led to this tragic death," the complaint, which led to a settlement, stated.

The Arizona Daily Star on YouTube: Winslow PD shooting of Loreal Tsingine

In comparison to Seattle, Winslow is a much smaller community. But Native Americans -- -- who represent 25.7 percent of the population in the city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau -- have long complained about discrimination and mistreatment in a city less than 30 miles from the Navajo Nation border.

"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 the Maricopa County would not be charging officer Shipley with any crimes.

According to county attorney Bill Montgomery, Shipley tried to arrest Tsingine but she swung at him with a pair of scissors. He said Tsingine ignored "multiple commands" to drop the item and "aggressively advanced on the officer" with the scissors in her hands.

The Arizona Daily Star obtained body camera footage of the moments leading up to the fatal shooting. Although the video appears to run at a fast speed -- the clip that is posted on YouTube lasts for just 35 seconds -- it looks like Shipley shot Tsingine shortly after confronting her. A second officer who was approaching Tsingine from behind did not appear to have the opportunity to subdue her before she was shot.

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 last week, six mothers of African Americans who were killed spoke together on stage before former president Bill Clinton.

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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