The late afternoon sun cast shadows on the pavement as the squad car pulled up alongside a petite Navajo woman walking slowly down a street lined with modest homes, dirt yards, and chain-link fences. A white cop with a buzz cut and a powerlifter’s build, dressed in a department-issue polo shirt and military-style boots, jumped out.
“Police, stop!” he yelled.
Twenty-seven-year-old Loreal Tsingine turned around and peered at him through her glasses. They’d met before, although it wasn’t clear if he realized it. Without any explanation, Officer Austin Shipley pulled her arms behind her back and tried to force her into handcuffs.
Seemingly bewildered, Tsingine shook off his grasp and kept on walking down the empty street.
Shipley yanked on the hood of her jacket, which hung off her slim, 5-foot, 2-inch frame. She fell to the ground, her body colliding with the cold pavement.
When she got back up, she was clutching the small pair of metal scissors she used to trim the ends of her long, black hair, which that day was pulled back into a messy bun. Shipley threw her to the ground again. Pill bottles containing the anti-psychotic medication she hadn’t been taking fell out of her purse and scattered across the sidewalk.
She got up again, and began to stride confidently toward the cop.
Shipley pulled out his .40 caliber Glock 22.
He fired five rounds.
Then Loreal Tsingine, who’d been nicknamed Dreamer and loved her 8-year-old daughter more than anything else, collapsed for a third, and final, time.
Another officer, who’d just arrived on the scene, picked up his radio and called for help as she rolled, painfully, from her side onto her back. Shipley’s gun stayed drawn and pointed at her. He breathed heavily, almost hyperventilating, as her blood spilled out onto the dirty pavement.
“She came at me with those scissors,” he said, then started retching, just as sirens became audible in the distance.
It was March 27, 2016 — Easter Sunday — in Winslow, Arizona, a high-desert railroad town that borders the Navajo reservation. Just moments before, a cashier at the Circle K had called police to tell them that the Native American woman in gray sweatpants who’d shoplifted two six-packs of Bud Light earlier that day had returned to the store.
Later, Tsingine’s friends and family watched the police body camera footage from the last 30 seconds of her life again and again, trying to understand what went wrong, and how an arrest for shoplifting had turned deadly.
“She was kind of lost in the world, but that wasn’t a reason to kill her,” says her friend Dedrick Romero. “That’s not being a cop; that’s being a murderer.”
Tsingine’s death shocked people in Winslow, who thought of their town as a quiet place where not much happened besides the occasional meth bust. Suddenly, the young mother with the quick smile who’d worked at a nearby animal kennel was part of a national statistic: the growing number of Native Americans who’ve been fatally shot by police officers.
Native Americans aren’t typically thought of as the face of police violence. But a 2014 study using data from the federal Centers for Disease Control showed that over a 12-year period, Native Americans were statistically more likely to be killed by police than any other group, including African-Americans.
Nationally, Native Americans make up just 0.8 percent of the population. Yet they comprise 1.9 percent of all police killings.
And between 2015 and 2016, Native Americans were the only racial group to see their death toll due to police shootings go up, even as the number of officer-involved shootings across the country fell.
Until we understand why this is happening, we won’t be able to make sense of Loreal Tsingine’s senseless death.
The road to Teesto, where Loreal Tsingine grew up.
Antonia Noori Farzan
Loreal Juana Barnell grew up in Teesto, a community of 900 people living in ranch houses scattered amid the juniper and sagebrush in the southeast corner of the Navajo reservation. It’s roughly a 45-mile drive on the two-lane road from Winslow, passing by flat rangelands and purple-gray buttes. Horses graze under wide-open skies, and sunflowers grow on the side of the road. Cell service arrived a few years ago, but some people in Teesto still don’t have running water. Seba Dalkai, the Bureau of Indian Education school that Loreal attended, is the only employer in the area, so residents often travel into Winslow to find work instead.
When Loreal was 10, her father died. Her mother, who had grown up at a time when Native American children were still taken away from their families at a young age and sent off to abusive boarding schools intended to “civilize” them, suffered from alcoholism. Child Protective Services placed Loreal with an uncle who lived in Winslow instead. She bounced back and forth between his house and her grandmother’s home on the reservation, rarely staying in either place for too long.
By 17, she’d dropped out of high school and moved to Flagstaff to live with a man who was four years older. A year later, her daughter, Tiffany, was born. In photos taken at the hospital, Loreal looks like she can hardly believe her luck. She got Tiffany’s name tattooed on the front of her wrists, and “Blessed Forever” on the back.
“Being a mother is not about what you gave up to have a child, but what you’ve gained from having one,” she posted on her Facebook page.
The following year, in 2009, her own mother died. It was around this time, her family says, that she rediscovered the Christian faith that she’d been brought up in. According to her friends, she also began turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with the pain.
In 2011, things began to look up when she married Michael Tsingine, who was 10 years older and had kids from a previous marriage. He’d been living up in Page, near Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon, and the two went hiking together in the dramatic sandstone canyons. They posed for pictures, squinting in the northern Arizona sunlight, and carved their names, Mike and Loreal, into the red rock.
But after a few years, she returned to Winslow. Her posts on Facebook give a sense of her mental state at the time. On November 19, 2014, she wrote, “I’m done, I’m through, I can’t do this anymore. Each day is getting harder and harder. If ya don’t see or hear from me no worries I’m sure I’ll be in a better place.”
A few days later, she shared a quote: “I am a strong person, but every now and then I need someone to take my hand and say everything will be alright.” Within hours, she posted again, this time in her own words: “Hey we should do some things we shouldn’t be doing?!?! Adrenaline rush, baby!!!”
On Thanksgiving Day, she typed, “Right about now I really wish I had wings so I could fly so high and far away. I’m sure I wouldn’t be missed anyway. I’m invisible even now. I’m just a waste of space … real talk.”
Loreal’s relatives have declined to discuss her mental health history, and Phoenix New Times was unable to reach Michael Tsingine. But police records show that she’d been prescribed aripiprazole, an anti-psychotic medication used to treat bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression, and was carrying the pill bottle when she was shot. (A toxicology report suggests that she hadn’t taken the medication recently.)
In the wake of a fatal shooting, discoveries like these are alarmingly common. In fact, when researchers from California’s Claremont Graduate University studied fatal police shootings of Native Americans over a 15-month period, they found that nearly half the victims had documented histories of mental illness.
And regardless of their race, people with untreated mental-health issues face an increased risk of being killed by police officers.
The Washington Post, which maintains a database of fatal police shootings, has found that over the past two years, mental illness played a role in roughly a quarter of all incidents. In most of these cases, no crime had been committed; rather, police were responding to a call reporting a mentally ill person behaving erratically.
“From an officer’s perspective, they’re trying to manage and control the situation,” says Heather Hamel, a Phoenix-based civil rights lawyer and the founder of Arizona Justice That Works. “There’s a huge focus on getting people to comply, often by using force, but the problem is that with people who have mental-health issues, that’s going to escalate any paranoia that they have.”
A study conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum found that, on average, new recruits get only eight hours of training that teach them how deal with people who are experiencing mental-health crises. That means officers often lack the ability to accurately assess whether an individual poses a legitimate threat, and may not even recognize the symptoms of mental illness in a suspect.
And when a mentally ill individual is at risk of hurting themselves or others, the officer who responds to the scene may not know how to safely subdue them.
But that doesn’t mean that more training is the answer, Hamel says. Rather, it should be mental-health professionals who respond to mental-health crises — not law enforcement.
After all, she points out, mental-health professionals have years of education and training in their fields. Expecting cops to play the role of psychologists and social workers, with only a sliver of that knowledge, is unrealistic.
“We’re relying on them to do these things because we don’t want to invest in mental-health care,” she says. “But that lack of investment is deadly.”
Funding for mental-health services is dismal across the board, but the problem is compounded in Native American communities. Indian Health Services, which approximately 60 percent of Natives rely on for health care, is chronically underfunded and overburdened, with a budget that hasn’t kept pace with inflation.
In fact, one UCLA study found that the U.S. government spends half the amount, per capita, on IHS as it does on health care for federal prisoners.
Meanwhile, thanks to hundreds of years of genocide and trauma, Native American communities report shockingly high suicide rates, with one recent Department of Justice study noting that Native children experience PTSD at the same rate as combat veterans.
And less than 1 percent of the IHS budget goes toward urban health initiatives — despite the fact that census data shows that more than 70 percent of Native Americans live in a metropolitan area.
On top of that, there’s a nationwide shortage of Native American psychologists and counselors.
All in all, the UCLA researchers concluded, accessing culturally relevant care was next to impossible.
“What I have found is that a lot of people who have mental-health problems don’t know their diagnosis,” says Winslow’s new police chief, Daniel Brown, who took over in May 2017. “So then they turn to substances of one sort or another.”
“You couple the mental-health disorder with a substance-abuse problem and you have a firestorm. It leads to criminal activity, and that’s when a lot of folks get arrested. And then it’s a downward spiral.”
In December 2014, Loreal Tsingine’s beloved uncle, Benny Barnell, died. The next year, her behavior became increasingly erratic, and she had a number of run-ins with the police, getting cited for shoplifting from the Family Dollar, riding in a stolen car, and getting in a fight with two other women outside Walmart.
By then, she was living with a man described in police records as a 31-year-old Hispanic male. On two occasions, the Winslow Police Department received calls from concerned neighbors saying they believed Tsingine was the victim of domestic violence. She declined to cooperate with investigators, and no charges were filed.
On April 27, 2015, Winslow police were notified that Tsingine had woken up with no clothes on and might have been sexually assaulted. Officer Austin Shipley responded to the call.
Tsingine didn’t want to talk to him. “Victim appears to be on some kind of drug,” the incident report notes. It was the second time he’d been sent to do a welfare check on her.
A month later, Tsingine shared a variation of the Serenity Prayer on her Facebook page: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept stupid people the way they are, courage to maintain my self-control, and wisdom to know that if I act on it, I will go to jail.”
Roughly two weeks later, she did go to jail. A store clerk at R. B. Burnham & Company, an old trading post from the frontier era that now sells Navajo rugs and jewelry to tourists passing by on Interstate 40, called to report that she’d been running around the store and had refused to leave.
When a deputy from the Apache County Sheriff’s Office found her, she was poking at an electrical box full of wires, swinging a padlock in one hand. Seemingly confused, she gave her name as “Barnell Yazzie” and claimed she had been born on June 11, 2015.
Tsingine tried to wriggle away when the deputy attempted to arrest her. When he pinned her against the hood of his car, she reached for the pistol in his holster. But before she could grab it, he knocked her onto her back. As she kicked and punched at him, he held her down and forced her into handcuffs.
“OH yea feels good to be FREE….lol,” she posted after her July release.
Yet before long, she was back in jail again, this time for drinking at a bus stop in Holbrook. Through the fall and into the winter, she fell into a cycle where she’d get arrested for a minor offense, skip her court appearance or violate the terms of her parole, then get sent to jail when a police officer ran her name and found her open warrants.
In February 2016, a month before her death, Michael Tsingine filed for divorce.
Then, on Easter Sunday, she showed up at the Circle K in gray sweatpants and a tank top. Seemingly unaware that everyone in the store was staring at her, she grabbed a hot dog off the rack and began to eat it. The cashier, who later told investigators that Tsingine had seemed “a little out there,” dialed the police.
“She’s back again,” the cashier told them.
The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission has spent years documenting racism and discrimination in predominantly white towns that border the reservation, such as Flagstaff, Winslow, and Holbrook..
New Times illustration
To understand the context of Loreal Tsingine’s death, you have to start in a place like Winslow.
Four blocks from the Circle K, a seemingly endless stream of tourists stop to take pictures at Standin’ on the Corner Park, which commemorates the city’s main claim to fame — a brief mention in the Eagles’ “Take It Easy.” Ignoring the young Navajo woman selling jewelry in the 100-degree heat, they head for the souvenir stores that display Confederate flag bandannas and fake Border Patrol badges alongside T-shirts plastered with Glenn Frey’s face.
Then, they get back on the highway.
Away from the few blocks that make up the tourist area, there isn’t much to see in Winslow besides abandoned motels and service stations along U.S. Route 66, which in 1979 was replaced by an interstate highway that decimated the city’s economy.
Largely unbeknownst to nostalgic white baby boomers, towns like Winslow that sit on the edge of reservations have long been the site of violence and harassment directed at Native Americans, both from civilians and the police officers who are ostensibly there to protect them.
The earliest examples date back to when these communities were first built by white settlers, but brutal violence is hardly a thing of the past. With alarming regularity, reports emerge of Native Americans being beaten to death, their bodies found in ravines or on the side of the road.
Barbara Perry, an internationally recognized expert on hate crimes, spent close to a decade at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff in the late 1990s and early 2000s, studying racially fueled violence against Native Americans in the Four Corners area.
“I could have not have anticipated how emphatic participants would be in their indictment of police as enablers — if not participants — in the racial harassment and violence directed toward Native Americans,” she wrote afterwards.
In towns that border reservations, she found, police were eager to investigate cases where Native Americans were accused of wrongdoing, but less interested when Native Americans themselves were the victims of crimes.
“It is as if police are ready and willing to accept the mythology of the ‘savage’ Indian, and act accordingly,” she concluded.
For the past four decades, the United States Commission on Civil Rights has been holding hearings in border communities across the western United States, compiling hundreds of pages of reports that describe, in detail, the many forms of discrimination that Native Americans face when they leave the reservation for work, school, or simply to shop for groceries.
The 1975 Farmington Report — written after the bodies of three Navajo men who had been severely tortured were found scattered in the canyon country outside Farmington, New Mexico — documented a realm of civil rights abuses akin to conditions found in the Jim Crow South. Included among them were claims that policemen frequently beat up Navajo men, calling them “red dogs” and accusing them of living off welfare.
In 2004, the Commission on Civil Rights returned to Farmington and noted “marked improvement,” while also acknowledging that racial profiling was still a concern. The new report had not even been out for a year before William Blackie, a 46-year-old Navajo man, was driven to a secluded area of town by three young white men who beat him over the head with a club, shouting, “Die, nigger! Just die!” Miraculously, Blackie survived; when the Farmington Police showed up, he begged them not to shoot him.
Six days after Blackie’s near-death experience, Clint John, a 21-year-old Navajo man, was fatally shot by a white Farmington police officer during a confrontation in a Walmart parking lot. Shortly afterward, the Navajo Nation created its own Human Rights Commission to investigate racism and discrimination in border towns, and began holding hearings throughout Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.
During those hearings, Navajos testified that they were told, “I hate educated Indians,” refused service in restaurants, and picked up by law enforcement officers who would then drive them to the city limits and drop them off on the side of the road. Farmington may have developed a reputation as the Selma, Alabama, of the Southwest, but its problems were (and are) by no means unique.
”There’s not a sense that the town fathers have any kind of accountability or responsibility to the Navajo people who come into these towns,” says Jennifer Nez Denetdale, a professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico who serves on the Human Rights Commission.
“We’re always treated as outsiders, even though that is our territorial land. Anything that we have to say is not regarded as anything that the fine mayors of these towns have to consider.”
In many communities that border reservations, Native people have no representation in local government. Winslow, for instance, is 23 percent Native American and 29 percent Latino, yet the mayor and everyone on the city council is white.
By contrast, the jails are full of Native Americans, who are disproportionately arrested, ticketed, and incarcerated. In Winslow, 65 percent of the people arrested in 2016 were Native American — a rate consistent with previous years. Likewise, in Flagstaff, nearly half the arrests over a five-year period involved Native Americans, who make up 12 percent of the city’s population.
In both cities, the disparity in arrests is frequently attributed to the large number of “visitors” — that is, people who live on nearby reservations.
Winslow police chief Daniel Brown points out that since alcohol sales are banned on the Navajo reservation, people often travel to border towns to drink instead, then end up getting arrested for fighting, panhandling, or trespassing. “We have criminalized something that we should look at as a public health issue,” he acknowledges.
Statewide statistics from the Arizona Department of Public Safety confirm this: In 2015, Native Americans made up 21 percent of the arrests for liquor law violations, despite only being 4.5 percent of the population.
Undoubtedly, alcohol abuse is an issue in Native communities. But that doesn’t fully explain some of these statistics.
Take underage drinking, for instance — a law frequently broken by bored teenagers of all races. In Flagstaff, Native Americans received 57 percent of the citations handed out for underage drinking in 2016, even though the city is home to a large (and predominantly white) university that has a reputation as a party school.
Similarly, in Farmington, New Mexico, where Native Americans make up 22 percent of the population and 68 percent of arrests, 84 percent of citations for underage drinking went to Native kids last year.
Complaints about being pulled over for “driving while Native” are also common. Andrew Curley, an organizer with the Bordertown Justice Coalition, says that he was routinely pulled over by police in Flagstaff while he was conducting research there for his Ph.D.
“I’ve lived all over the country, but it’s only in Flagstaff that I’ve had constant harassment for petty infractions like a crack in the windshield,” he says.
He draws the comparison to Ferguson, Missouri, where low-income black residents were frequently pulled over for minor infractions like a broken taillight, then handed expensive tickets that they couldn’t afford to pay.
“We are poor — we have less resources than most of the white population,” Curley says. “Driving around on these BIA roads, they’re not well maintained, and if rocks end up in your windshield, it’s going to be expensive to get it fixed. A lot of people on the reservation don’t have disposable income, and as a result they get pulled over by police and searched.”
Police agencies routinely deny that they engage in racial profiling, which is easy to do since they receive relatively few formal complaints about it. Widespread distrust of law enforcement means that even getting people to raise grievances at a public hearing is a challenge, Jennifer Nez Denetdale says.
“They don’t want to draw attention to themselves,” she explains. “If they provide testimony, they’re subjected to possible intimidation and harassment again.”
Outright violence, too, often goes unreported, according to Roberto Sheets, a former Winslow police officer.
One time, he says, he saw a fellow officer punch an intoxicated Native American man who’d been handcuffed and was waiting to be transferred to the county jail in Holbrook. Another time, he witnessed an officer drag a 14-year-old into his car and start kicking him, supposedly because the teenager had spat on him after being handcuffed.
“I’ve seen an officer beat up on a 19-year-old in a holding cell, no threat to nobody, because she didn’t want to blow into the tube to get her B.A [blood alcohol content],” he adds. “So he stamps on her foot — a 200-pound man — and she punches his leg ’cause it hurt. I’d have done the same thing. Then, he started whaling up on her face.”
Winslow Police Chief Daniel Brown told New Times that the allegations were “alarming” and that he would investigate Sheets’ claims.
But Sheets isn’t optimistic. He told the 19-year-old girl that she could file a complaint and he’d be a witness, he says. But she didn’t want to do that.
“They [Native Americans] are so scared of retaliation from the police department,” he says. “Once they got to know me, they would tell me, ‘That officer kicked my leg,’ or whatever. I’d say, ‘I need a name.’ But they were afraid.”
After eight years with the Winslow Police Department, Sheets was let go in 2015. He can’t talk about what happened because he has an EEOC complaint pending, but documents obtained through a public records request show that he was terminated for discussing official department business outside the chain of command.
Seeing what happened to Loreal Tsingine, he says, has made people even more fearful. But what upsets him most is his belief that her death could have been prevented — if only someone had listened to the concerns that he and other officers had shared about Austin Shipley.
“Her death should never have happened,” he says. “And it’s devastating, because she’s got a little girl who’s going to grow up without a mom.”
Former Winslow police officer Roberto Sheets says he witnessed other cops beat up Native Americans who were in their custody.
Antonia Noori Farzan
On September 22, 2016, Austin Shipley walked into the two-story glass atrium that greets visitors to the Mesa Police Department. He sat down in front of a panel of veteran cops who’d be conducting an independent investigation into Loreal Tsingine’s death. Then, over the course of an hour, as his voice grew hoarse, he tried to explain what had happened that Easter Sunday.
By that point, the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office had already conducted their own investigations, so some of the answers were routine. Yes, it was normal in Winslow to respond to calls before backup could arrive. No, he hadn’t known that Tsingine was carrying scissors. Yes, he’d been given a Taser and was carrying it at the time.
Tom Denning, a former homicide detective previously tasked with investigating cold cases, led the questioning. He stumbled over the pronunciation of Tsingine’s last name several times (it’s SINN-uh-gin-ee,) then gave up.
“Did you utilize your full potential physical strength on Miss, uh, on her, when you attempted to detain her?” he asked Shipley, a 200-pound man who spent his spare time powerlifting.
“No, sir,” Shipley croaked.
“And why not?”
“I — in my mind — ”
“At the time,” Denning prompted, sounding almost paternal.
“At the time, I just didn’t think it was necessary. I mean, in my mind at the time, speaking frankly, I was thinking, this is stupid. Why is she acting like this over a petty shoplifting incident?”
“So, is it fair to say that if you chose to, you could have used more physical force on her?”
A month later, the Mesa investigators presented their findings to the Winslow Police Department. Shipley resigned on the spot. To this day, he has not publicly commented on the shooting. His wife, Rachael Roberts Shipley, a nurse at the Little Colorado Medical Center, tells New Times that he’s joined the military.
“He wants to just put the incident behind him,” she says.
What we do know about Shipley comes from his internal affairs file. The son of a railroader, he was born in 1989, the same year as Loreal Tsingine, and grew up in Winslow. He got his high school diploma from Abeka Academy, an online distance-learning program run by Pensacola Christian College that’s been criticized for denying scientific concepts like evolution. In July 2012, he joined the Winslow Police Department.
Training records show that as a recruit, he was admonished at least five times for failing to follow orders, and dinged for six other policy violations, including falsifying a report that almost led to a wrongful arrest, taking home a domestic violence report and showing it to his wife so she could proofread it for him, failing to establish probable cause for an arrest, and improperly removing evidence from a secured box.
Instructors noted that he was too quick to reach for his weapon. He also appeared to relish the thought of violence.
“Officer Shipley has made the statement that having a badge gives him the right to harass the public,” Sergeant Ken Havlicek wrote, noting that on one occasion when an intoxicated suspect approached them, Shipley had later stated that “he was waiting for the subject to get stupid with him, so he could fight him.”
In another situation, a suspect became verbally aggressive, but officers were able to calm him down. “Shipley advised me that the next day he went home and ‘pouted’ because I took the fight away from him again,” Havlicek reported afterward.
Shortly before Shipley’s training came to an end in September 2013, Corporal Ron Chisholm wrote a memo to Police Chief Steve Garnett and Lieutenant Ken Arend, urging them not to hire him.
“Officer Shipley continues to falsify reports,” he wrote. “This is not a wording issue. The issue [is] accurately reporting the facts as they took place.”
But Shipley got the job anyway. In a memo later sent to Arizona POST, the standards board for law enforcement agencies, Lieutenant Jim Sepi said he’d been told, “There’s nothing to it; they just don’t like him,” when he asked Arend about Chisholm’s concerns.
Arend, who is still employed by the Winslow Police Department, declined to comment.
And once Shipley became a full-fledged officer, the complaints continued to come in.
In 2013, he was suspended and required to attend diversity training after a woman complained that he’d called her teenage daughter a cunt. (She also accused him of slamming the girl against his squad car, which he denied.)
Then, a month before Tsingine’s death, he received a one-day suspension, this time for using his Taser on a 15-year-old girl who’d disobeyed his orders. He was still on probation the day he responded to the shoplifting call from the Circle K.
There’s little question that Shipley should never have become a police officer, or at very least shouldn’t have been allowed to carry a gun. But was his quickness to pull the trigger indicative of insidious and deep-seated racial prejudice? Because of Shipley’s silence, it’s hard to tell.
“Would he have done the same thing to a white person who was accused of shoplifting?” Andrew Curley of the Bordertown Justice Coalition asks. “Would he have pushed her down like that? I don’t know.”
And virtually nothing is known about whether unconscious biases make it more likely that a police officer would perceive a Native American suspect as violent or threatening.
Michael Friedman, a clinical psychologist in New York City, has documented how sports-team mascots reinforce negative stereotypes and lead to negative perceptions of Native Americans, particularly among non-Natives.
But there isn’t any evidence connecting that phenomenon to the high rate of Native Americans being fatally shot by police. No one’s ever done the research.
Nor, to his knowledge, has anyone studied the biases that people have against Native Americans, generally, and whether law enforcement officers share those biases.
“The bottom line is we simply don’t know,” Friedman says. “But I think it’s important to look at this issue. If there’s this much of a disparity — what’s going on that this keeps happening?”
Then he adds, “If this were happening to other groups of people, it would get a lot more funding, a lot more research, and a lot more resources.”
A memorial to Loreal Tsingine at the spot where she died.
Antonia Noori Farzan
On March 27, 2017, roughly 20 people, most of them Navajo, marched down Winslow’s usually quiet streets under overcast skies. Dressed in hoodies to fend off the March chill, they carried photos showing Loreal Tsingine smiling widely at the camera, her newborn daughter in her arms. It was the one-year anniversary of her death.
When the protesters reached the Winslow Police Department, which is located in an otherwise-empty shopping center, there wasn’t a single officer in sight. But someone had been expecting them. Caution tape and safety barriers surrounded the building, preventing them from getting too close.
They waited in the potholed parking lot until the sun went down, lighting candles that flickered as the wind began to pick up. Tsingine’s grandmother, Sarah Morris, grabbed a bullhorn from one of the activists from the Bordertown Justice Coalition. “Austin Shipley, I know what you did,” she shouted. “You won’t get away with it.”
The lights inside the police station went on, but no one came out to address the group. “Winslow police, where the fuck are you?” her cousin, Alta Barnell, yelled. “I’m never going to let this go.”
Toward the end of the vigil, gentle rain began to fall. It was a sign, some of the marchers said, that Loreal was watching.
“We’re still angry, we’re still frustrated, but above all we still have faith we will get justice,” Tsingine’s aunt, Floranda Dempsey, told the crowd.
So far, justice has proven to be elusive. Six weeks after the shooting, Winslow Police Chief Stephen Garnett, who’d signed off on Shipley’s hire, announced plans to retire. Winslow city officials claimed the timing was purely coincidental.
Then, last July, after what he called a “careful review,” Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery announced that Shipley wouldn’t face criminal charges.
A month later, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division announced it would be conducting its own investigation into Tsingine’s death. There was hope that the federal government would come in and demand meaningful reforms in Winslow, like it had in Ferguson and Baltimore.
But then the 2016 election happened. Under the Trump administration, the Department of Justice’s priorities have shifted away from police reform. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it clear that he thinks the DOJ has no business telling local law enforcement agencies what to do — in his confirmation hearing, he claimed that federal investigations of police departments were bad for morale, and dismissed the abuses described in the Ferguson Report as “anecdotal.”
Tsingine’s family say they haven’t heard from the Department of Justice since the investigation was opened. Likewise, Winslow’s new police chief, Daniel Brown, says he’s heard nothing since taking over in May.
In response to queries from New Times about the status of the investigation and whether it has been closed, spokesman Devin O’Malley sent a one-sentence response: “The DOJ declines to comment.”
A memorial to Tsingine still sits at the spot where she was killed. Painted pink and decorated with fabric flowers and prayer candles, it’s become a familiar part of the landscape, just like the Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains that pass through town so often that locals no longer notice the noise. For a while, Tsingine’s friends and relatives gathered there on the 27th of each month, but eventually life got in the way, their numbers dwindled, and the monthly vigils came to an end.
On one recent hot Friday afternoon, the parking lot at the Circle K was packed with trucks towing rafts and inflatable tubes as people on their way to Clear Creek stopped by to pick up firewood, propane, and frozen slushies in insulated foam cups.
The white guy working behind the counter had never heard of Loreal Tsingine. He’d only been on the job for six months, since moving out west from Arkansas.
“Arkansas was kind of violent,” he says. “There were a lot of shootings. It’s nice here. Peaceful, quiet. You don’t have a lot of problems.”