Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the country in both size and population, is as extraordinary for its sweeping, magnificent views as it is for its rugged remoteness.
Fewer than 200,000 people live in the sovereign nation that spans parts of three states: Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
But beneath that bucolic veneer of serenity lives an impoverished people often racked by violence. Navajo Nation has a violent crime rate higher than most major US cities — and a police force in mourning after a third Navajo Nation police officer in less than two years lost his life on the job.
That officer, Houston Largo, was shot March 12, while responding to a domestic violence call.
According to Navajo Nation Police Chief Philip Francisco, Largo, 27, traveled nearly an hour to the call, and — as is typical — without backup. “There was an altercation and shots were exchanged,” he said.
Largo, who was also a volunteer fire fighter, was airlifted to an Albuquerque hospital, where he died the next day.
“It’s just devastating, it really hits you right here in the heart,” said Russell Begaye, President of Navajo Nation. “The nation is suffering. The nation is in mourning because of the death of Officer Largo.”
Navajo cop: A different job
By all accounts, being a cop is tough business. Even if the safest areas, it’s a tough job. But being a cop on Native American reservations — where violent crime rates are more than 2.5 times the national rate, according to the US Department of Justice — is different.
“We know that they have a different job on Navajo,” said Begaye, who points to rampant alcohol abuse and high unemployment as culprits.
The entire reservation police force numbers approximately 200 officers. Combine that with the reservation’s sheer size — 27,000 square miles, greater than the size of West Virginia — and being cop in the Navajo Nation isn’t only different, it’s quite dangerous.
“It’s difficult to serve as a police officer on Navajo,” said Begaye. “Most of the time, you don’t have back-up … sometimes you’ll have another officer driving an hour an hour and a half, responding to a domestic violence situation.”
Compounding the danger for the Navajo Nation Police Department is the challenge of policing with paltry resources.
“We are working with half the staff other departments are working with in twice the area,” said Navajo Police Chief Phillip Francisco. “So the struggles and hurdles we deal with are immense, but they go out there and do it every day, despite the dangers, despite not having back up close by. They work twice as hard as any officers I know.”
Francisco, a first-time police chief, is only months on the job in Navajo, and it’s been like no other job he’s had in his law enforcement career.
“I tell the officers all the time, they are the hardest working officers that I know of,” he said.
Largo’s death has rattled the beleaguered police department.
“They are struggling,” said Francisco. “They lost one of their family, their little brother, so they are taking it hard.”
Still, despite it all, Francisco said Navajo officers are like no other he’s worked with.
“Officers in other departments, they retire after 20 years,” he said. “A lot of the officers here have been here for 40 years.”
For any officer, it’s a commitment that comes with a price. For Houston Largo, it came with the ultimate price.
“To come to Navajo, where you know you’re going to be covering long distances, driving long hours, (and where) pay is not going to be equal to the state or to the county,” said Begaye, “you’re making a commitment, I’m Navajo and i want to come home and help my people better themselves, and that was Officer Largo.”