Data on murders of indigenous women is hard to come by, and bills proposed in the Arizona House and Senate aim to shine a light on that and more.
House Bill 2570, introduced by Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, D-Chandler, would create a committee to study murders of indigenous women and girls and would submit a detailed report later this year to the Governor and state legislators.
The bill is similar to a measure passed last year in Washington which was partially inspired by a lawmaker’s viewing of the film Wind River, which focuses on a murder on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.
A mirror version of the bill is also being proposed in the Senate by Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson.
“The only thing that just kills me is that, while we are trying to figure this out and do this study, more people are dying,” Steele told the Arizona Mirror. “It gives a whole sense of urgency to this.”
Research done by the Urban Indian Health Institute based out of Seattle released late last year found that Arizona had the third highest number of missing or murdered indigenous women or girl cases, often referred to as MMIWG cases.
Their research found that, out of 5,712 cases of MMIWG reported in 2016, only 116 were logged into Department of Justice databases. Murder is the third leading cause of death among Native American women.
Researchers attempted to collect data on MMIWG cases by filing records requests with police departments across the country, but found that many agencies were be non-responsive, lacked good data or had no data at all.
In Arizona, the cities of Flagstaff, Phoenix, Tempe and Tucson were targeted by the researchers. Tucson ranked No. 4 across the nation in highest number of MMIWG per city. Researchers were able to identify 31 cases in 2017 alone.
Six police agencies failed to respond to records requests before researchers published their report in October 2018, one of which was the Tempe Police Department.
Flagstaff and Tucson insisted on charging fees that researchers were unable to pay for.
The average age of the victims was 29 years old.
“It is something that we all immediately said, ‘Yes, we need to do this,’” Jermaine said about the bill. “I’m excited that we have been able to get broad bipartisan support and am hopeful we will get a hearing and get it passed.”
Jermaine is part of the Indigenous People Caucus at the legislature that has been working to get this bill proposed and passed. The idea was originally proposed by former Rep. Wenona Benally, Jermaine said.
The bill has bipartisan support, with Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, and House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, both telling Jermaine and Steele they support the bill.
Complications in the data
If the bill passes and a committee is formed, it will be reporting its findings by November of this year.
But the committee will likely be facing an uphill battle on gathering that information, as researchers have found that getting the data is not as simple as it may seem.
One of the main problems researchers faced when trying to quantify the problem was an issue with how the crimes were reported.
Many times, deaths of Native American women were reported as Latina, mixed race or other in police reports.
This led some data analysis to be wholly impossible.
“[Many] Native Americans adopted Hispanic names back during colonial times…Our crime systems are not flexible enough to pick out Native Americans from others in the system…it would be impossible to compile any statistically relevant information for you,” a representative of the Santa Fe Police Department told UIHI researchers.
In data obtained in Anchorage, they found a case where a woman was misclassified as white, another that was deemed a suicide despite being reopened as a homicide and another that was deemed an overdose despite the body being moved in a suspicious manner.
Researchers also found that approximately 95 percent of the cases they analyzed were not covered by the local media, either.
Despite the hurdles, Steele is confident that if the measure is passed and the committee is formed that they’ll be able to find enough information by November to at least begin the process of determining what solutions, if any, can be applied legislatively.
“We’re not going to be starting from zero, which is why I think we will have something worthwhile by November,” Steele said.
Steele said she isn’t sure if the problem is groups working in “silos” causing a lack of reporting, a lack of training on how law enforcement agencies collect the data or if it’s a matter of more strongly enforcing current laws.
If the bill is passed, the committee will consist of chairpersons of the House of Representatives and the Senate’s Indigenous Peoples Caucus, the attorney general or a designee, the director of the Department of Public Safety or their designee, a sheriff and county attorney from each county, one tribal representative, one victim advocate, one tribal chief of police, one peace officer from a reservation, a social worker and others who work with Native American communities.
The committee does not require any money to function, which makes Steele confident it will pass.
The Senate bill has been assigned to the Judiciary Committee, but the House Bill has not yet been assigned to a committee.