Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye speaks at a vigil for Loreal Tsingine, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Winslow, Arizona, on April 2, 2016. Photo: Navajo Nation OPVP
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Trump administration won't pursue charges in fatal shooting of Navajo citizen

The Navajo Nation is weighing legal options after the Trump administration declined to file charges against a police officer who shot and killed a tribal citizen.

At the request of Navajo leaders, the Department of Justice opened an investigation into the March 2016 death of Loreal Juana Barnell Tsingine. The incident occurred in Winslow, Arizona, a community near the reservation where tribal citizens have long complained of discrimination.

But in an October 17 letter, the "acting" chief of the civil rights division at DOJ said there was no evidence that Tsingine was the victim of mistreatment. The police officer involved in the shooting claimed that the 27-year-old mother posed a threat because she had a pair of scissors in her hand.

"Based on this evidence, we conclude that there is insufficient evidence to disprove the officer's claim that he shot Mrs. Tsingine in self-defense and in defense of a second officer who was nearby," the letter to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye stated.

The decision was rebuked by Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch. She said the officer failed to consider other options to deal with Tsingine, who had prior interactions with the police department.

“The killing of Ms. Tsingine, while an injustice in itself, is part of a larger pattern of systemic violence against Native Americans by law enforcement and as such the Navajo Nation cannot accept the finding of the USDOJ," Branch said.

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 represent 25.7 percent of the population in Winslow, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The city is less than 30 miles from the Navajo Nation border and citizens who live there and travel there for employment, education and other opportunities have often complained of mistreatment.

Tsingine's death galvanized those concerns. Her family has filed a $10.5 million claim against the city and the Navajo Nation might head to court with its own case in 2018, Branch said.

"The nation will continue to work on legal and political efforts to achieve justice for Loreal Tsingine and her family," Branch said.

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. But there has been little official attention to the issue, beyond the investigation of Tsingine's death and an earlier one in Seattle, Washington.

The officer who was involved in the shooting, Austin Shipley, quit the force in October 2016, seven months after the incident. He was cleared of any wrongdoing by the state before he stepped down.

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