From Ferguson to Flagstaff

Susan and Timothy Swanson, co-pastors at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church have served the Flagstaff community for five years. Susan Swanson has just returned from participating in a march in Ferguson, Mo. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun)

Jake Bacon

As the nation continues to debate the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed black 18-year-old who was shot and killed by a white police officer three weeks ago, Flagstaff residents are also reflecting on police tactics and community race relations.

“Members of the Flagstaff Police Department have been as concerned as many citizens throughout the country by the recent events in Ferguson, Mo.,” said Flagstaff Police Chief Kevin Treadway in a statement to the Daily Sun.

Luis Fernandez is a Northern Arizona University criminology and criminal justice professor who has written two books about social movements, policing and the ways police interact with protesters. He said he was not surprised that Brown’s death has sparked such a passionate national response.

“I think that what we’re seeing here is something we haven’t seen in the U.S. in a long time, probably not since the riots and what some people call the ‘rebellions’ in Los Angeles in 1992,” Fernandez said.

In Fernandez’s opinion, the Ferguson protests were a response not just to Brown’s death, but to other incidents in which young African-American men have been killed with seeming impunity, such as the 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant by a BART Police officer in Oakland, Calif. and the 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch member in Sanford, Fla.

More than a century of racial inequality in the St. Louis area and the recent recession that disproportionately affected black and Hispanic Americans added fuel to the fire, Fernandez said.

Even though it may not have the same history that led to the events in Ferguson, Fernandez said even Flagstaff will be affected by what happened there.

“I have a feeling there is going to be a pre-Ferguson and a post-Ferguson United States,” Fernandez said. “There is a conversation now on the table that we have skirted for a long time that has to do with the racial tensions with police and policing.”

Fernandez said Treadway seems level-headed, but he stressed that the issue is bigger than just one police chief.

“These issues don’t have to do with whether the chief is good or the chief is bad,” Fernandez said. “The issues here are structural issues. You have populations that probably are a little poorer, and the role of police in maintaining the social order when people are feeling that the social order is not particularly just to them usually creates tensions regardless of the administration of the police.”


There have been no riots or mass protests in Flagstaff since Brown’s death. But Fernandez said that does not mean race is not an issue in this quiet mountain town.

“There are still populations within our community that have a similar sentiment to what they have in Ferguson,” Fernandez said. “Those tensions still exist, they just seem a little toned down.”

Unlike Missouri, which has a history of segregation and conflict that dates back to the days of slavery, Fernandez said the racial tensions in Flagstaff tend to involve different minority groups.

“Our dynamics are a little different,” Fernandez said. “The racial dynamics that we have in our community aren’t black and white because we don’t have necessarily that history. We have a brown-white dynamic. If you look at the racial distinctions here in our area, it has to do with whites and Latinos and whites and Native Americans.”

The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission began looking at how Navajo people were being treated by police in towns bordering the Navajo Nation after a young Navajo man was shot to death by police in Farmington, N.M. in 2006. Lauren Bernally, interim director and policy analyst for the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, said her office has since received several complaints of aggressive police behavior against Navajos in Flagstaff, though she did not go into detail about those complaints.

“We did have a couple cases concerning the police force there,” Bernally said. “And we’re still in the process of investigating one case.”

A few years ago, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission partnered with Native Americans for Community Action to learn the major concerns of Navajo residents in Flagstaff as part of a broader outreach to the Navajo Nation border towns.

“They felt like there was racial profiling,” said NACA Workforce Investment Act Director Rose Toehe, who helped conduct the survey. “(They would say,) ‘Why did I get stopped when I didn’t do anything?’ or maybe ‘I was told to empty out my pockets and I had an arrowhead in my pocket and maybe it could have been looked at as a weapon.’”

In response, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and NACA worked with law enforcement experts to create an Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board-certified cultural sensitivity training curriculum for FPD.

“Our main point is just to share who we are as a people to people who are willing to listen,” Toehe said.

All FPD officers are now required to complete the cultural sensitivity training, which introduces non-Navajo officers to the history of the Navajo people. It also teaches officers about cultural differences, such as how Navajos have a different concept of the nuclear family or how they may carry sacred objects on their person or in their vehicles that may be mistakenly perceived as drugs or weapons to non-Navajos. Treadway also invited other local law enforcement to attend, including some officers from Winslow and the Valley. Toehe commended Treadway for being “instrumental” in moving the program forward.

“I feel really good about the interactions we’ve had with the officers,” Toehe said. “This is a first step. There is still a lot we can improve on. As far as I know, this has never been done anywhere before.”


Treadway said he has tried to include minority groups in his community outreach. For instance, he shares information on Navajo-related use of force incidents, arrests and citizen complaints with the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and has also attended public meetings with Latino groups to discuss concerns related to SB1070. In 2012, the department changed how it tracks citizen complaints against officers, making it easier to see how many complaints are specifically related to race. Around 4 percent of FPD’s complaints in 2012 were race-related, while just 1.75 percent were race related in 2013. Overall, white citizens have filed the overwhelming majority of complaints against the police department every year since at least 2009.

Treadway sees that drop in race-related complaints as a good sign. But there is still one area that troubles him.

According to information from the 2010 Census, around 18 percent of Flagstaff residents were Hispanic or Latino and around 11 percent were Native American. But as of 2013, there were just 11 Hispanic officers on the police force — about 10 percent  — and no Native American officers. The disparity is not something Treadway wants on his police force.

“As the chief of the Flagstaff Police Department, I understand the importance that our police agency represents the demographics of the community we protect,” he said.

FPD has made some improvements, including the recent hiring of a female Native American officer and a female Hispanic officer. The department also has at least 19 officers who can speak a second language. But Treadway said Asian and Native American officers and female Hispanic officers are still under-represented. He blamed high turnover rates and difficulties in recruiting minority officers despite regular requests for the Criminal Justice Department at NAU, NACA, Navajo Human Rights Commission and the local Citizens’ Academy to refer qualified applicants. He is even asking for the public’s help.

“I call upon the entire community to assist us in our recruiting efforts, Treadway said. “If anyone knows of an interested, qualified applicant of any race, please encourage them to apply for our department.”


The protests in Ferguson have started national conversations about more than just race relations. They have also sparked widespread interest in the ways police officers choose to use force against civilians. Flagstaff had its own police shooting controversy eight years ago with the death of Kyle Garcia.

Garcia, 23, was shot and killed by two anti-gang task force officers during a traffic stop in Sunnyside. The officers, who had pulled him over for listening to loud music at night in violation of the city’s noise ordinance, were approaching Garcia’s vehicle when the young man put the car in gear and sped toward them. The two officers fired a total of 13 times, striking Garcia once in the upper back at the shoulder. He was pronounced dead a short time later at Flagstaff Medical Center.

Both officers, one of whom worked for FPD, were cleared of criminal charges after Yavapai County authorities who investigated the shooting concluded the officers acted in self defense, but Sunnyside residents continued to raise questions about when police officers should use deadly force against a suspect.

Fernandez was hesitant to talk about the Garcia shooting, which happened when he first moved to Flagstaff. After the shooting, he was asked by some Sunnyside community members to give them information on forming a civilian review board, though it never came to fruition.

“It was so heated in the community,” Fernandez said. “But I would not have expected mass street protests from that.”

Fernandez attributes the lack of Ferguson-style protests after Garcia’s death to both Flagstaff’s small size and to differences in the cities’ cultural dynamics.

But Sunnyside Neighborhood Association Executive Director Coral Evans said FPD’s relationship with local communities made a big difference.

Evans said the neighborhood group contacted the Flagstaff Police Department in an effort to create a relationship several years before Kyle Garcia was shot and killed by a law enforcement officer. She wanted to be clear that it was never determined whether the bullet that killed Garcia came from the Flagstaff police officer’s or the Arizona Department of Public Safety officer’s gun.

 “The community felt that it was extremely important that we establish a relationship with the police department,” Evans said. “We had a high crime rate. We told them, ‘We know we have problems here. We want to help you solve those problems. We want you to know the community.’ We wanted them to do more than just standard policing.”

The association also didn’t want every interaction with a police officer to be a negative experience, or end in an arrest, Evans said.


 And the Flagstaff Police Department responded. Officers hold regular meetings in the neighborhood to hear complaints, concerns and kudos from the community. They attend community events, hold bike safety classes and pass out bike helmet and stickers to the kids.

It’s because that relationship with the police department was already established that Flagstaff didn’t have a situation like Ferguson did after Garcia was killed, she said.

 “Anytime an incident like what happened in Ferguson or with Garcia happens, it’s a tragedy for all involved,” she said. “It’s a tragedy for the community, for the city, for the police department and for the family. It’s horrific.”

“There’s always a loss of trust when a community member is shot and killed by a police officer,” she said. “From what I’ve read and seen, Ferguson already had a lack of trust with the community, for quite a while. This incident just brought it to the forefront for the rest of the public and the nation,” she said.


What struck Evans most about the Ferguson incident was the city’s police chief didn’t make a statement to the press or the public after the event.

“I kept asking myself, where is the police chief?” she said.

When the Garcia shooting happened, Flagstaff Police Chief Brent Cooper immediately contacted the community, Evans said.

“The first person who came out to us was the police chief. He accepted responsibility for the shooting. He agreed to investigate and promised to talk to the community about the results,” she said. “He didn’t try to pawn it off on someone else.  He had that much respect for the community. He wasn’t afraid to talk to the community because we had already been working on a relationship with the police.”

Current Police Chief Kevin Treadway also holds regular community meetings where residents, who may be afraid to approach an officer about an issue, can speak directly to the chief about an issue.

“Our relationship is not perfect. It never will be. There will always be things that the community and the police department disagree on,” she said.  “Bad things can still happen.”

Reach the reporter at or 556-2261.

Sun Staff Reporter Suzanne Adams-Ockrassa contributed to this story.


Load comments