Attorney general unveils plan on missing Native Americans

Attorney General William Barr speaks at a Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes council meeting, Friday, Nov. 22, 2019, on the Flathead Reservation in Pablo, Mont. Sitting with Barr are Tracy Toulou, right, director of the Justice Department's Office of Tribal Justice, and Kurt Alme, U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana.

United States Attorney General William Barr rolled out a national plan Friday in an effort to address the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women, an issue the state of Alaska sees in epidemic proportions. 

Barr’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative would foot $1.5 million to create special positions in 11 U.S. attorney’s offices across the country that see increased MMIW cases and develop new protocols for handling such cases, including additional investigation, reporting and data analysis. 

The plan also provides local and state law enforcement the ability to lean on the FBI for investigation into certain cases. The FBI would assist with specialized teams including investigators who focus on child abduction and evidence collection. 

Just how bad the epidemic is no one quite knows, as any functional database of cases doesn’t exist. The issue is only exacerbated by low reporting of related crimes. 

There were 5,712 cases of missing and murdered indigenous girls in 2016, but only 116 of those cases were logged in a Justice Department database, according to date from the Urban Indian Health Institute.

Barr met with Alaska law enforcement and tribal officials earlier this year to better understand the statewide epidemic, later declaring a law enforcement emergency in rural Alaska. What followed was an influx of funding to address the issue in the form of a $10.5 million grant directly following the declaration and a later-announced $42 million to Alaska Native tribes, tribal consortiums and other organizations as well as $7 million sent to the Denali Commission to distribute in community-based micro-grants.

The fund would pay for additional law enforcement positions and training in rural areas of the state, increased attention to open and cold cases and increased law enforcement and investigative collaboration.

Alaska Native women are 10 times more likely to experience domestic violence compared with other women in the United States. Similarly grim statistics show that while Alaska Natives are only about 20% of the state’s population, Alaska Native women make up 54% of the state’s sexual assault victims. 

“American Indian and Alaska Native people suffer from unacceptable and disproportionately high levels of violence, which can have lasting impacts on families and communities,” Barr said. 

“Native American women face particularly high rates of violence, with at least half suffering sexual or intimate-partner violence in their lifetime. Too many of these families have experienced the loss of loved ones who went missing or were murdered. This important initiative will further strengthen the federal, state and tribal law enforcement response to these continuing problems.”

Even with the initiative, Barr noted that much more work needs to be done. 

The AG’s announcement came just one day after Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan and a number of other senators introduced the Senate’s version of the 2019 Violence Against Women Act reauthorization. 

“No U.S. attorney general in history has shown greater commitment to the safety and well-being of indigenous people in Alaska than Bill Barr,” Sullivan said. “The initiatives being undertaken and support being offered by Attorney General Barr and the Trump Justice Department are simply unprecedented. I believe his meetings with Alaska tribal leaders and visits to some of our most challenged villages this summer had a lasting impact on the attorney general. He is clearly determined to put the full weight of the federal government behind addressing the lack of justice for missing indigenous persons and safety in many rural communities.”

The Senate’s 2019 VAWA bill included the Savannah’s Act legislation — championed by Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski — which seeks to raise awareness of the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women and increase law enforcement attention to the matter and legal availability and response to victims and survivors.

In reflecting on the bills, Murkowski said it was time the issue gained the attention it is due. 

“I’ve heard far too many horror stories about the issues women in our communities face when it comes to the need for law enforcement and the response. The statistics are shocking how quickly vulnerable, Native women are being swept into a net of violence that is devastating,” Murkowski said. “They go missing, are trafficked and some to the point of being murdered. Families have experienced an unspeakable loss and felt let down by a system that has failed and not protected them.”

Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.