- Associated Press - Saturday, December 12, 2020

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - More law enforcement should be cross-commissioned to better handle checkerboard jurisdictions, additional resources need to be put toward tribal criminal justice systems and support services for those trying to escape violence, and data collection needs to be standardized across New Mexico.

Those were among the findings in the first report of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force.

The task force, whose members include state Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo, Navajo Nation first lady Phefelia Nez, New Mexico State Police Capt. Troy Velasquez and others, was created in 2019. Its goal is to research why there are a disproportionate number of missing and slain Indigenous women and girls and to make recommendations on what can be done to address the issue and get justice for their families.

According to the report, New Mexico has the highest number of cases in the country despite having the fifth-largest Indigenous population in the nation.

Task force members presented their findings and recommendations in a recent virtual news conference, the Albuquerque Journal reported. While the report was forwarded the report to the bill’s sponsors and the governor’s office, no specific legislative action was announced.

“We’ll be looking at the recommendations to see if there is anything we can take up in the legislative session,” Trujillo said. “Not only is it getting funding from the federal government, but also state and local government as well to ensure there are resources provided in relation to the different recommendations coming out from the task force.”

While the task force was initially created to look at the issue of missing and slain women, it evolved to include all genders. Over the past year, researchers tried to collect as much data as they could on exactly how many Indigenous people were reported missing over the past five years in New Mexico and how many were killed.

While the data sets were incomplete, one member said “those numbers are much higher than expected.”

Researchers reached out to 23 agencies around the state, asking for data regarding missing persons cases, homicides, suspicious deaths and deaths in custody broken down by race, ethnicity and sex between 2014 and 2019. Only two county law enforcement agencies - McKinley and San Juan counties - and three municipal police departments - Albuquerque, Gallup and Farmington - supplied the data sets.

“When we analyze all three departments collectively, we find that Native Americans are highly over-represented among missing persons in Farmington and Gallup, but not in the major urban core of Albuquerque, where their representation of missing person cases is roughly equivalent to their share of the overall population,” the report says.

In McKinley and San Juan counties combined, Native Americans made up just over 50% of all missing persons cases. According to 2019 U.S. Census data, McKinley County is 79.6% Native American and San Juan County is 41.6% Native American.

Overall, task force members said there needs to be much better data collection, since what they have only provides a small glimpse at the scale of the problem.

One of the things that complicates not just the reporting of cases but also the investigation is when incidents occur across a maze of jurisdictions. It can be difficult to determine whether federal, tribal or state law enforcement has authority to investigate, the report says.

In some cases, the U.S. Attorney’s Office is handed the case file for federal prosecution but ends up declining it due to insufficient evidence.

State Police Capt. Velasquez said it’s not uncommon for a crime to begin on the reservation and end off of it, or vice versa. He said one way to address this problem is to increase instances where tribal, state and county officers are cross commissioned so they can work on and off tribal land.

“This is something that needs to continue, it needs to be worked on and if we’re not doing it we need to do a better job of it,” Velasquez said.

Beyond strengthening investigations, Navajo Nation first lady Nez said tribes as a whole need to get more funding for their criminal justice systems so they can properly uphold both tribal and federal laws, such as the Violence Against Women Act.

Funds are often tied to grants, which need to be applied for every couple of years - an onerous process - task force members say.

“The task force recommends all tribes enact laws and help identify funds to empower tribal criminal justice systems,” Nez said. “Tribes need to initiate dialogue that would eventually lead to amending current laws and enacting new laws.”

Task force members also brought up putting resources toward preventing violence - whether it’s rehabilitation programs for Native youth, awareness campaigns about the issue of missing or slain Indigenous women, or funding emergency domestic violence shelters and other services that help people who need to get away from a violent situation.

The task force plans to talk with legislators, collect more data and ask for a governmental position to be dedicated to the issue.

“At the heart of it, while we’re issuing a report, it’s by far no means a final report,” Trujillo said. “It’s a step toward a direction, and always one thing we focus in on is these are people and our relatives and our sisters.”

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