Attorney General William Barr has launched a national plan to address the large numbers of missing and murdered Native Americans amid concerns about the disproportionately high levels of violence they face.
Barr unveiled the Justice Department’s (DOJ) strategy called The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) Initiative during a visit with tribal leaders and law enforcement officials at the Flathead Reservation in Montana on Friday, Nov. 22. The Flathead Reservation is home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT).
He said the initiative will “strengthen the federal, state, and tribal law enforcement response” to high rates of violence faced by American Indian and Alaska Native people.
“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 in a statement. “Too many of these families have experienced the loss of loved ones who went missing or were murdered.”
He highlighted how Native American women face particularly high rates of violence, with at least half suffering sexual or intimate-partner violence in their lifetime. According to a 2016 study funded by the National Institute of Justice, more than 1.5 million Native American women have experienced violence in their lifetime. Meanwhile, the study also found that more than 1.4 million Native American men have experienced violence in their lifetime.
The initiative will invest $1.5 million to place MMIP coordinators in 11 U.S. Attorney’s offices across the country to develop standard protocols and procedures for responding to reports of missing or murdered Native Americans. The states are Alaska, Arizona, Montana, Oklahoma, Michigan, Utah, Nevada, Minnesota, Oregon, New Mexico, and Washington state, the DOJ said. The Montana MMIP coordinator has already started his position.
The strategy will also deploy specialized FBI teams to provide expertise in areas such as child abduction cases or to analyze digital evidence and social media accounts. The DOJ also said it would perform an in-depth analysis of federal databases and analyze data collection practices that could help improve ways to collect missing person data.
“There are many issues we’d like to discuss, including one that is particularly important, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons efforts. Knowing that Attorney General Barr is working to secure the safety of our people brings us comfort in the face of a challenging issue,” said CSKT Chairman Ronald Trahan in the statement.
While speaking to tribal council members on Friday, Barr said the initiative was not “a panacea” but a step in the right direction, adding that more work needs to be done in cooperation. He indicated that he had informed President Donald Trump about the initiative, which calls for some of the same things already in legislation pending in Congress.
Barr also said he spoke to tribal leaders about how a surge in methamphetamine use may be influencing violence in Indian Country.
Meanwhile, tribal members welcomed the extra resources and commitment to the issue but questioned how far the money will go, given how widespread the problem is.
“This is stuff we’ve been advocating for, it’s just funding a slice of it,” said Amber Crotty, a lawmaker on the Navajo Nation.
Crotty pointed out that the hiring of 11 coordinators assigned to federal prosecutor offices nationally as outlined by Barr could have limited value on the Navajo Nation, which is part of three separate U.S. attorney jurisdictions in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.
She said tribes are looking to the federal government to fund advocates who can greet families of victims, relay information from law enforcement, and provide training. She said tribal communities have resorted to organizing their own search parties and posting fliers in communities and on social media when someone goes missing because they sometimes get little or no response from law enforcement.
The Urban Indian Health Institute found, citing statistics from the National Crime Information Center, that there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls in 2016 while only 116 cases were logged in the DOJ’s federal missing person database, according to a February report.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.