Although the national media was more than willing to redirect its national spotlight from the COVID-19 pandemic to focus on the sensational disappearance of Gabby Petito, the beautiful young blonde victim whose social media videos captivated America, it more than often pays little to no attention to thousands of other missing persons cases.
One group of missing persons and victims that rarely get attention from the media are missing Native Americans despite the fact that research shows violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women in the U.S. is a serious crisis.
As the former staff director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and a former federal and tribal prosecutor who handled tribal law cases as well as a victim’s rights attorney handling cases for the D.C. Crime Victim’s Resource Center, I took a deep interest in this problem and learned the following:
Cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women continue to persist nationwide, but without more comprehensive case data in federal databases, the full extent of the problem is still unknown. As of 2016, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center reported 5,712 cases of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls despite the Justice Department’s missing persons databases only reporting 116 cases.
The title of a recent, Oct. 28, 2021, Government Accountability Office report — “Missing or Murdered Indigenous Women: New Efforts Are Underway, but Opportunities Exist to Improve the Federal Response” — says it all in that the government’s efforts in this area are lacking. The report highlighted the need for better law enforcement coordination and reporting of missing Native Americans.
Specifically, GAO cited that “relevant DOJ and Department of the Interior (DOI) law enforcement agencies that investigate cases of missing or murdered women in Indian country have engaged in other efforts to address the crisis, but they have not implemented certain requirements to increase intergovernmental coordination and data collection in the two 2020 laws, which remain unfulfilled past their statutory deadlines.”
This raises the obvious question as to why it is so difficult to provide much needed statistical information to assist in finding missing people. Part of the problem may be read between the lines of the aforementioned GAO report as there are four separate and distinct federal law enforcement agency databases recording information on this ongoing crisis.
When I asked Charlie Addington, the former director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Justice Services about this, he explained, “There was not a mandatory reporting requirement under the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) to report missing persons. The FBI will generally not collect any information unless a criminal matter has been established in a missing person case and coordination issues will not be resolved unless there are better cooperation efforts among all the stakeholders in the development of a new or enhance data base. This could take some time.”
These databases include the FBI’s National Crime Information Center and its National Incident-Based Reporting System, the National Institute of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, and the CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System.
Despite these databases keeping track of missing persons and collected information on their cases, they do not provide any data analytics on actually finding or investigating missing people, nor are they widely used outside the federal law enforcement apparatus, which means that tribal law enforcement officers working on Indian reservations and within the Native American community, lack access.
If the crimes or missing people are occurring on Native American Indian reservations, why not allow tribal law enforcement the same database access?
This is important because categorizing the data is one thing, but transmitting the data to law enforcement officials and other stakeholders so they can better understand the nature of the missing people and how it is changing is equally important.
One solution to this problem would be using data analytics to identify trends in the geographic concentration of cases across the U.S. as well as the distribution of cases inside and outside American Indian country. This would include demographic characteristics such as age or gender, open and closed cases, and correlations between missing persons or murder cases associated with other crimes. Examinations of the nexus between all these demographics are all possible.
In the meantime, there are successful “off the shelf” investigative data-driven tools tribal law enforcement officers can use, such as the LexisNexis Accurint Virtual Crime Center, which merges all law enforcement data with public records information in real time to solve cases.
Ideally, however, tribal law enforcement officers will ultimately get more access and cooperation from some of the federal government’s more elite justice agencies. Violence against Native American women in Indian Country is a tragic reality, but placing the problem on the back burner without the full attention of federal law enforcement agencies is shameful.
It’s time the U.S. law enforcement apparatus gave missing persons in Indian Country the attention it deserves, which means federal law enforcement agencies working in synch with one another as well as the tribal law enforcement officers who are in the best possible position to help them solve these pressing cases — before time runs out.
• T. Michael Andrews is a senior vice president at McGuireWoods Consulting and is the former staff director and chief counsel at the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.