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Reporting from Native America

May 27, 2016
Latest post: March 20 5:07 pm

"Navajo Cops" director shares his experience filming the six-episode series

Director of the Navajo Cops series on National Geographic Television Sam Dolan shares his experience filming Navajo Cops
Courtesy photo

When strange howls come from the mountains or justice needs to be brought to the Navajo people, the Navajo Nation Cops are on the scene.

Through six episodes of “Navajo Cops”, a show picked up by National Geographic Television featuring the lives and work of Navajo officers on the reservation, viewers got a backstage pass on what patrolling the Navajo reservation is like.

The show, produced by Sam Dolan and Flight 33 Productions, aired a pilot in May 2011 that gained so much attention that more episodes were in high demand.

The episodes aired from March to May. Dolan said filming the show was unlike anything he’s done before.

"It was a very inspiring experience. [The cops] mean a lot to me," said Dolan.

It was also a very surprising experience for Dolan and the crew.

In September 2011 he and the crew were on hand when the Navajo Cops got calls from residents in Crownpoint, N.M. saying they had heard a strange sound coming from a near by mountainous area.  

"It was a long night [but] we didn't hear anything," Dolan said.

However a month later the same calls came pouring back into the station but this time there was more to record.

So, that afternoon as the film crew followed the cops they heard the strange noise that plagued the small town for weeks.

"I've heard of lot of noises. I don't think it was a coyote or an elk," Dolan said. With the absence of wild life and only the strange noise and musky smell the cops had no choice but to investigate.

Footage showed a pair of glowing eyes in between some rocks, but when cops reach the area there was nothing to be found, leaving the "Howler" to remain a mystery to cops, residence and audiences alike.  

"It was a very strange day of my life," Dolan said.

Tradition, culture and taboos are important to Native Americans and with instances like the "Howler" the crew was very sensitive.

The filming was done throughout most of the Navajo reservation, which seeps into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Some of the more popular town filmed were the larger ones like Chinle, Tuba City, Window Rock (the Navajo Nation capitol) and Shiprock.

Dolan and the crew got to see what crimes plague Navajo country first hand.

He said he and the crew were exposed to a lot of difficult things but were successful in how they handled them. One of of things included seeing the glowing eyes of what the cops thought was the “Howler”.

While the creature captured audiences every where it was really the cops who kept the viewers coming back for more. 

The casting for "Navajo Cops" didn't require auditions or call backs but simply a show of character, personality and willingness to participate.  

"It’s good to have a handful of characters," Dolan said.

He added that it allowed viewers a chance to relate to them and bring in a human element to a fast paced show.

In this season, Officer Philbert Toddy, Officer Perry Champagne, Officer Genevieve Morgan, Officer Tiffany Tallman, Officer Christopher Holgate and a handful of others were chosen to represent the police force.

And the task didn't just require a simple one-time ride along. The cast opened up their personal lives and allowed the nation to follow them into their homes and meet their families. They exposed everything behind the job, including the cultural and traditional aspects.  

Champagne, who is originally from New Orleans but married into the tribe (he is now divorced), is one of about five non-Natives serving on the force and speaks the Navajo language fluently.

“He really cares about the people in the community. His situation is obviously unique,” Dolan said.

Another officer with a unique situation is Toddy. A former Marine, his hard-knock, no-nonsense ways makes his character one of a kind. Toddy works on the force with his brother, and in a job like this it might be nice to have family around to lean on.  

As for Holgate, one of the younger military veterans on the force, he quickly became a fan favorite and the heartthrob of the show.

"He won't be able to do undercover work after this," Dolan joked.

While having female officers in the force isn’t a new thing, it was interesting to see the importance of women on the force.

Plenty of other shows have female cops but this show seemed to make them more personal.

Officer Tiffany Tallman has five children and for her and her family law enforcement is a tradition. Her father, Lt. Norman Dodson, is a veteran police officer and her brother, Officer Eric Dodson, currently serves on the force with her.

Phone calls made to the Navajo Nation Police department were unanswered.

The Navajo Cops brought to light the heart of the job. They showed us danger, sorrow, inspiration and the value of family. They also brought the unknowing a sense of exposure of the Navajo people, culture and tradition.

Dolan said he had his father by his side every step of the way during the production of the series and the focuses on family throughout the show was what really made it relatable and true to the Native culture.  

Dolan said he is not sure if the show will get picked up for as second season but until then he hopes viewers got a chance to get to know the Navajo Cops.

"I hope people see that these officers really care,” Dolan said. “They all want everybody to be safe.”