Police substation remains unused most of the time

January 29, 2013 • State News

FARMINGTON, N.M. (AP) — A half-million-dollar police station paid for by San Juan County taxpayers for use by the Navajo Nation has been little more than a temporary rest stop.

The building near Huerfano, about 30 miles south of Bloomfield near U.S. 550, sees little action. In its two-[auth] and-a-half years of existence, the facility that was supposed to be fully functioning police substation has become a stopping point for officers patrolling the highway who need to use the restroom or write a report.

Navajo Nation officials said a lack of resources has made it difficult to permanently staff the station. And a lack of jurisdiction in some areas serviced by the station reduces the need for Navajo Nation police officers there, they said.

In 2009, San Juan County and Navajo Nation officials signed a contract that said the county would build the $511,000 facility and the tribe would “assign a minimum of four law enforcement officers to the substation.” The contract also said San Juan County Sheriff’s deputies, New Mexico State Police officers and FBI agents could use the building.

The purpose of the project was to reduce the lengthy 911-call wait times residents of Huerfano and Nageezi and other Navajo chapters in the region were experiencing, officials said.

“I’m disappointed (Navajo police) have not upheld their end of the bargain after the taxpayers of San Juan County invested $500,000,” San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen said.

County government officials are also concerned the contract was not upheld.

“It’s a situation where we built it and nobody came,” San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said.

There are several clusters of Navajo Housing Authority homes in the area surrounding the substation. But it is outside the exterior boundary of the Navajo Nation in a mix of tribally owned and non-tribal lands, often referred to as the “checkerboard.”

County commissioners voted to build the substation in November 2009 and construction started the next month.

San Juan County and Navajo Nation officials gathered outside the facility for a ribbon-cutting ceremony in July 2010.

The building has a briefing room, administrative offices, bathrooms, a larger room for patrol deputies, two holding cells and a kitchen.

A sign on the outside of the building this week said the station was open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

But the door was locked. No one was inside.

And no American flag flew on the flag pole.

No one at the sheriff’s office knew whether the two small jail cells have ever held a prisoner.

A sign hanging near the front of the building extends a special “thank you” to San Juan County taxpayers who made the project possible.

“This is a great building,” San Juan County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Dan Ashburn said. “It’s well maintained, it’s just not used.”

Ashburn lives in a San Juan County-owned house near the substation. He sees Navajo and New Mexico State Police officers and sheriff’s deputies briefly come and go from the facility a couple times a week but there is not a continuous law-enforcement presence there, he said.

“This is the only police station in American that doesn’t have an American flag flying out front and that really bugs me,” Ashburn said.

Former County Commissioner and Nageezi Chapter President Ervin Chavez founded the project when he was a commission member.

Chavez said what the county and tribe negotiated never materialized.

“When we negotiated (the substation) we had all the right people in place. (Law enforcement) was going to use it as a police station for this region,” Chavez said. “But it seems like everything changed.”

The closest Navajo Nation police agency to the substation is near U.S. 371 in Crownpoint, which is about an hour-and-a-half drive from the substation.

County officials said when the agreement was signed they believed Crownpoint officers would occupy the substation.

The Crownpoint police department has 16 patrol officers, including three who live in the Huerfano area, and patrols more than 20 chapters on the southeastern side of the Navajo Nation, said Crownpoint Lt. Calvin Begay.

He said the officers who live in the area respond to the calls for service by local residents and they use the substation to write reports, but they do not occupy the substation on a daily basis.

“We use it but we don’t staff it 24/7,” he said. “We don’t have the resources.”

Erny Zah, the spokesman for the Navajo Nation President’s Office, said there were several reasons the tribe has yet to staff the substation, including that most Navajo police officers don’t have jurisdiction in the area because they are not cross-commissioned to enforce law on land not owned by the tribe.

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