Native Americans account for 1.8 percent of missing persons reports in the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database, although they are just 1 percent of the population. The database earlier this year included 633 missing Native American women, according to the Associated Press. That’s probably an under count.
More than half of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes — and 90 percent of these victims report being victimized by a non-Indian perpetrator, according to a National Institute of Justice report released this spring.
In Montana, there are new efforts to strengthen law enforcement on reservations.
Reservation law enforcement officers lack access to the basic databases and reporting systems that off-reservation police departments rely on daily. The Tribal Access Program is starting to fill that information gap, Montana’s U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme told The Gazette. The Fort Peck tribal police were among the first in the nation to be connected to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database with the TAP. The Blackfeet Indian Nation east of Glacier National Park has been awarded a TAP grant that will connect the that tribe's police to NCIC in 2019. The Crow and Northern Cheyenne communities will get new NCIC connections in 2019, Alme said.
NCIC access allows agencies to exchange information on crimes, convictions and sentences, along with entering protective orders to prevent domestic abuse, reports of missing persons, sex offender registration, and checks to prevent prohibited persons from possessing firearms.
The Hi-Line reservations employ tribal police with the Bureau of Indian Affairs providing funding. The Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations elected to have BIA provide local law enforcement officers. The FBI investigates felonies on all those reservations, but not on the Flathead Reservation where the tribes have chosen to have state laws enforced.
The multiple agencies and jurisdictions can be a hindrance to swift, effective response.
More coordination is needed between agencies early in police investigations to solve missing persons cases, Charles Addington, deputy director of the BIA Office of Justice Services, testified at a Dec. 12 Senate hearing.
In addition to lack of database access and overlapping jurisdictions, law enforcement agencies are understaffed.
“We know we don’t have enough law enforcement in Indian Country,” Alme said, noting that the ratio of officers on reservations is lower than the officer to population ratio off reservations.
In Montana, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has provided training to law enforcement in reservation communities, including prevention of human trafficking and domestic violence. The BIA added human trafficking investigation to its standard training academy in New Mexico.
With too few law enforcement officers, better training and access to databases is even more crucial. But it still takes sufficient numbers of well-trained, well-equipped law enforcement officers to respond promptly and appropriately to missing person reports, domestic violence and other crimes against women.
Montana Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester, both members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, called for a hearing on the appalling problem of missing and murdered Native American women and girls.
When the hearing was finally held on Dec. 12 in Washington, D.C., senators grilled three high-level federal officials responsible for federal law enforcement in Indian Country. Senators also heard from three women who described some of the atrocious examples of missing and abused women whose suffering wasn’t taken seriously or addressed promptly in Alaska, Montana and New Mexico.
The senators repeatedly expressed frustration at the hearing.
Our take: If the senators want better law enforcement in reservation communities, they will need to fund more law enforcement officers and hold both tribal governments and federal agencies accountable for spending those funds to deliver consistently professional, timely responses to crimes and missing person reports.
Meanwhile, there is something that individuals can do.
The national registry for missing persons was established to assist in locating all missing persons, not only Native Americans. It’s one tool to use in finding people and securing justice.