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Docuseries follows Navajo police cadets joining force that needs 700 officers but has 180

The Navajo Nation Police Department is severely understaffed. A three-part docuseries on Max takes viewers inside the department’s training academy, as recruits work to police the community — in many cases, their community.

Kahlil Hudson is a documentary filmmaker and one of the directors of "Navajo Police: Class 57."

Full interview

KAHLIL HUDSON: Well, I was curious, and, and what I was most interested in actually is was kind of telling a story about tribal sovereignty and you know, the, the idea that you know, tribes are autonomous entities capable of, you know, policing themselves and, and governing themselves. I had found a story about the reopening of this police training academy on the Navajo Nation.

And I thought, you know, and, and actually the former Chief of Police Francisco, when he was brought in as a new chief of police, he, he made it one of his mandates that he was gonna get this police training, training academy back up and running really as kind of a, a statement on on travel sovereignty. And so, yeah, that's, that's kind of where it all started.

Well, and it seems based on, you know, what you show in this docuseries that this is no ordinary police training situation, like this is not like the kinds of training in many ways that officers in other jurisdictions get, right?

HUDSON: Right. Well, they, you know, it's a unique job, because they're so understaffed, they're forced to, you know, patrol alone. They're oftentimes, traveling to a call up to an hour away. They're traveling on oftentimes, dirt roads or, or poorly maintained roads, going 100 miles an hour. Some of the, some of the most gripping moments where were, you know, blasting down a dirt road with officers. And it was pretty harrowing at times.

But so, they patrol alone. They, they have to cover a lot of ground. They had an independent report done that the Police Department did, and they found that they needed over 700 officers to actually do their job correctly, and they, at the time, they only had 180. They also are cut off from radio contact. Oftentimes, you know, we would find ourselves out, you know, in a remote area, with no radio contact, no cell service. And so, you know, if you run into some trouble out there, you pretty much have to be self-sufficient. You're on your own.

Well, how does that work? Then, I mean, how do you train somebody to be in those kinds of conditions where you can't radio for backup and even if you can radio for backup, it might take a long time for that person to get there.

HUDSON: Right. Yeah. So, you know, they really stress communication skills, right. Being able to talk your way out of a situation,, to be able to calm someone down who may be under, you know, distressed, angry. So they, they go through you know, de-escalation training and drills, and so that just, just being able to communicate and talk, you know, talk through a problem, you know, is, is highly important.

They also do a pretty in depth defensive tactics training, so hand to hand combat. You know, and they're they're trained to be able to take on multiple attackers at once. When I first started researching this project, I found that there are about twice the number of female officers on the Navajo PD than the national average. And, you know, in talking with officers and female officers, what everyone told me was that, yeah, female officers tend to be quite quite good, quite effective out there because you know that there, it's a matriarchal system.

So women kind of have a certain status out there and there, there's a certain amount of respect. So often times though when a female officer will show up and they'll be treated differently than if a male officer had arrived.

So you mentioned how understaffed this department is, are there efforts to try to recruit more officers? I mean, and if so are those efforts having any success?

HUDSON: Well, yes, that they do recruitment drives just about once a month in, in communities, even in border communities. In Farmington, Gallup, Flagstaff. And then on the reservation itself, they're constantly, I mean, there's a, there's a whole team just devoted to recruitment.

What did the recruits tell you? Like, what did the, the officers and the folks that were potentially going to be officers tell you about why they were choosing to do this?

HUDSON: Well, you know, for the most part, it's what's in the documentary, which is that they, they want to serve their community. And there's, there are different motivators behind that. And I think part of it is the fact that, you know, especially with our three officers, the three cadets that we followed, Shawvan Levi, Antwan Gray and Nora Allen, all three of them had stories from their past, right? Whether it was that they experience domestic violence in their family or in a marriage or, or they had family members that were criminals.

Shawvan Levi, for example, talks about his father's side of the family who has had many run, run-ins with, with the law and, and so, you know, for all three of those cadets, I think the motivation is, you know, they had experienced this thing, you know, growing up or, you know, in their younger years, and they were, you know, wanted to prevent, or at least help people in their situation, right.

What are the thoughts among the, the leadership of the Navajo Police Department in terms of having cadets, having officers who are themselves Navajo versus those who are not?

HUDSON: Yeah. Well, you know, that's the most, I think that's the most unique thing about the, the Police Department is that, you know, I, I think somewhere around 98% of officers are, are Navajo. And so, you know, obviously having members of the community, especially for example, Shawvan Levi, he grew up in Shiprock, he polices in Shiprock. So, you know, he not only does he know the community but the community knows him. And so there's a certain sort of connection, of course, that comes with that.

And it's not just the language, it's not just, you know, it's, it's actually being familiar with a lot of the, the folks, especially the, the repeat offenders people that they see, you know, once a week. And, and so of course, Navajo PD, you know, the chief and the, the commanders, the top brass, they're all aware that that having officers from the community is ideal, but they're desperate. You know what I mean? So, you know, having a, an officer from, from across the country that's unfamiliar with the territory is, is better than, than nothing.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.