FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The Navajo Nation has sued the federal government and Winslow over the death of a tribal member who was holding a pair of medical scissors when she was shot by a police officer for the northern Arizona city.
The tribe filed its lawsuit this week in U.S. District Court in Arizona on behalf of Loreal Tsingine’s daughter, alleging violations of Tsingine’s civil and constitutional rights.
The tribe contends Austin Shipley, who subsequently resigned his position as an officer, could have used non-lethal force when he responded to a report that Tsingine shoplifted from a convenience store in March 2016.
“Our people have the right to be free from unreasonable violence when they visit our neighboring communities, particularly from off-reservation law enforcement,” Navajo President Russell Begaye said in a statement. “Navajo lives matter, and that needs to be acknowledged and protected by our bordering jurisdictions.”
Authorities said Tsingine resisted arrest, refused commands and advanced on Shipley with the scissors before he shot her, striking her four times in the torso. The 27-year-old was pronounced dead on the sidewalk, down the street from the convenience store.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office cleared Shipley of wrongdoing in the shooting. The U.S. Department of Justice reviewed the case but said it could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Shipley willfully used excessive force and did not act in self-defense.
Kevin Washburn, a law professor at the University of New Mexico, said wrongful death lawsuits typically aren’t filed by tribes but it’s an exercise of sovereignty.
“Law enforcement is really hard and there are judgment calls involved in law enforcement, and a different set of eyes might view the judgment call that was made slightly differently,” Washburn said.
The Navajo Nation said Shipley could have used less than lethal force, pointing to the 100-pound (45-kilogram) difference between Shipley and Tsingine, and the difference in their heights. Even if she had attempted to stab Shipley, his body armor would have protected him, the tribe alleged.
Tsingine also had a history of mental health-related issues, and the tribe contends police officers weren’t properly trained. Shipley should have known of Tsingine’s history because he interacted with her, in April 2015 and August 2013, the lawsuit said.
Shipley told investigators he did not recall having dealt with Tsingine before.
The city of Winslow declined to comment on the lawsuit, but police Chief Daniel Brown said an external performance review led to more training on the use of force and hate crimes, and the department revamped its policies.
A new 15-member police advisory commission has two seats for Navajo citizens and one for the Hopi Tribe, he said.
“We’re definitely moving in the right direction,” he said. “The police department needs to be more inclusive of the community.”
The Justice Department also declined comment.
Tsingine’s family previously filed a $10.5 million notice of claim against the city, a precursor to a lawsuit. The complaint filed Tuesday seeks unspecified monetary damages, attorney fees, and policies to address mental illness, lethal force and cultural sensitivity.