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Columns : In My Sights

Wide Open Spaces

Every assignment in law enforcement is an opportunity for a new adventure.

July 13, 2018  |  by Dave Smith - Also by this author

Illustration: Sequoia Blankenship
Illustration: Sequoia Blankenship

Recently, I took my wife, the Sarge, to see my old stomping grounds on the Navajo Nation. We stopped to look at the new Four Corners Monument and then down to where my trailer used to sit at the Junction of US 160 and SR 504, in the little village of Teec Nos Pos. There is a new highway facility there now, and no Highway Patrol trailers. In fact, driving the length of the reservation we saw only one trooper.

The first thing that strikes you when you travel through the Navajo Nation is the vastness of the land. The reservation is approximately the size of West Virginia and home to the largest tribe in North America, the Navajos; it is also the home of the Hopi, a remarkable people living on the "Mesas" that compose their homeland.

My mind flooded with all remarkable memories I had from my time there. I drove past locations of fatals, fights, DWI's, and the tribal dances I had worked. Back then, I had left the urban streets of Tucson, with all of its remarkable adventures, to see what I might find in one of Arizona's most remote and unique assignments.

As it turned out, this was a perfect example of the "bad assignment" that resulted in many positive outcomes. As the old Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, "The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way." I embarked on this experience to learn as much as I could about the world around me, and it ended up shaping my beliefs about officer safety, training, and myriad other things. I studied the Navajo, read books I had always felt guilty about never reading, ran a marathon, learned to make bread from flour I had freshly ground, and experienced other things I never imagined I could still see in 1978.

I must confess I didn't leave the Tucson PD just to go to some remote location, but rather to get into the criminal investigation side of the agency that I had worked with, and hoped to work with again in the future. The deal was that everyone joining the Department of Public Safety (DPS) had to first serve in the Highway Patrol, and assignments weren't determined until the end of the academy—which everyone, no matter who you were, had to attend. Since I was married with no children, it was pretty certain I would get a remote assignment. So, when I saw Teec on the list, I just took it.

There was a saying in the highway patrol that if you really screwed up they would "Send you to Teec Nos Pos!" Well, I decided to see what that was all about, and I sure did. Every shift was unique, starting with the day I moved into the state trailer and found the pipes frozen in the below-zero weather of the reservation. Harsh weather, tough people, and vast distances created a unique enforcement environment.

Non-Indian arrestees had to be booked into the county jail in St. John, AZ, 267 miles away from Teec. If a relay couldn't be set up, you had a long drive ahead of you. Often, I would respond many miles to back up another DPS trooper or Tribal officer, and together we typically had to make up tactics for situations that we didn't have the resources for.

For instance, one day I backed up a Navajo DPS officer on a domestic involving a rifle, miles off the road in Utah. We snuck up on a hill overlooking the complainant's hogan and watched the suspect stumble around with an old 30-30 until he finally passed out on the front seat of his pickup…alcohol de-escalation.

Another time, the state decided to upgrade our radio system to UHF from VHF, without taking into account that those of us in the remote assignments still only had VHF radios; the fellow installing my particular repeaters decided to turn the VHF off after completing the UHF installation. Pretty strange to be in a remote area and suddenly the blind spot in your area becomes your whole area. It took a couple of days to get my system back up, and I am sure the dispatchers of Navajo DPS got pretty sick of relaying to Flagstaff DPS what I was doing.

I could go on and on about my time on the reservation, the friends I made, the thrills, the boredom, the learning. All of it shaped me dramatically, but I didn't originally plan on ever being a remote highway patrol officer. I considered the limited number of choices given me in the academy and took advantage of what could have been a miserable assignment. I had no television, no pubs, no gyms, no squad to go drinking with, not even a Circle K within 50 miles. But it turned out to be a defining adventure of my life.

You will be given choices in your career that seem to be lose-lose, when, in fact, they are chances to begin a new and unique adventure. Go for it…good luck and stay safe.

Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of "JD Buck Savage." You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.


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