Arizona law enforcement agencies need to begin reporting all missing persons cases into a national database if the state hopes to understand the scope of its cases involving missing or murdered indigenous women, a legislative study committee recommended Wednesday.
The committee spent more than a year examining how police departments in Arizona handle murdered or missing indigenous women and girl cases, often referred to as MMIWG cases. The members quickly discovered that reliable data and information on the cases was hard to come by.
“The first problem we faced was that this data did not exist in any law enforcement database,” Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, D-Chandler, said at the start of Wednesday’s virtually held meeting in which all the members gathered to view presentations on findings, approve of recommendations and discuss next steps.
The committee, which was formed in 2019, will submit a more than 300-page report on its findings to the legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey next week. It offered a litany of policy recommendations for state lawmakers, as well as some that require congressional action. The committee also made administrative recommendations for police agencies and state agencies.
Although data is limited, MMIWG cases are prevalent in Arizona — which has more Native American residents than any other state — and across North America.
An Arizona Mirror analysis of the sparse available data on MMIWG cases found that more than 25% of murders involving idigenous women in Arizona go unsolved.
Additionally, the Murder Accountability Project found that one in three murders of Native Americans in Arizona go unreported to the FBI.
This became one of the key areas of focus for the committee, and a presentation Wednesday by Arizona State University Professor Dr. Kate Fox highlighted some of the critical gaps and reasons why some of these cases may be going unsolved.
Throughout the course of their research, committee members found that barriers to alerting those in Indian country about missing peoples cases are often a major impediment to solving cases and tracking violence against women.
Certain cell phone carriers that are popular in the rural areas of the state can’t handle the AMBER Alert or Silver Alert systems. Additionally, when the alerts are able to go out, language barriers are sometimes an issue, Fox and her researchers found.
Fox’s team also found issues with how law enforcement classified Native Americans within their own systems. Her team reached out to all the law enforcement agencies in the state and was only able to speak to about a third of them. They found a single agency, the Prescott Valley Police Department, that allowed officers to input a person’s tribal affiliation into a form.
Next, Fox’s team dived into existing databases for missing and murdered indigenous women, girls and men.
Her team looked into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, also known as NamUs, a nationwide database that was created in 2003 that is overseen by the Department of Justice.
What the researchers found is that Arizona police aren’t required to input cases into NamUs. Only nine states require law enforcement to enter data into the database, and Arizona is not one of them.
Tucson-based researcher Katie Haverly spoke about how her team had interviewed families and survivors, as well as the struggles they also had with getting law enforcement and tribal governments to cooperate with the study committee.
Haverly and her team found that, before going missing, many of the victims had mentioned domestic violence or substance abuse — methamphetamine and alcohol were the most common — to their families.
The majority of families also mentioned that law enforcement was not helpful with their cases, with 83% saying that they were not referred to victim services. They also said law enforcement agencies didn’t refer them to the victim compensation fund.
Of the eight survivors of violence Harverly’s team was able to interview, six were kidnapped, drugged, sex-trafficked or groomed to be sex-trafficked.
The team reached out to 72 law enforcement agencies and were able to interview 33 of them. Five agencies refused to participate in the study, saying that they either did not have those types of cases, were too busy or gave “hard no’s,” Haverly said.
“I want them to publicly say they are not going to participate,” Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, said of the unnamed agencies that refused to participate, calling it “unconscionable.”
Of the 21 federally recognized tribes in Arizona, only eight entered into memorandums of understanding with the study committee to allow its members to be interviewed by researchers. Any person who was not on tribal land could be interviewed without an MOU.
“This was an opportunity for them to really address a primary safety concern on tribal nations,” Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Window Rock, said. “It was a failure of the tribal governments and the tribal leadership in not working on getting an MOU.”
Jermaine later added that some of the tribal nations were having difficulties adapting to the new changes that came with COVID-19 as some tribal governments did not have some of the infrastructure needed to properly set up the virtual networks needed for interviews and the MOUs. Haverly said that this was a roadblock to some of the agreements.
The recommendations for changes on how to solve the MMIWG crisis were divided into seven areas: Legislative, law enforcement, administrative, victim services, data improvement, resource allocation and training and education.
The legislative initiatives include requiring at least one member of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission to be a representative of an Arizona tribe.
The ACJC oversees criminal justice programs in the state; 14 of the 19 commissioners are appointed by the governor. Only 12 of the seats on the commission are currently filled. The committee also recommended more tribal representation on AZPOST, which certifies police officers in the state, and the Arizona Department of Homeland Security Regional Advisory Council.
The committee also recommended creating an Arizona Missing Persons Assistance Fund to help assist families, victims and law enforcement with missing persons cases.
Additionally, the committee called for mandating police agencies report cases to NamUs, as well as submitting all cases of missing children to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The committee also recommended legislation to ensure law enforcement properly documents race, gender and ethnicity in all reports as well as additional training alongside tribal governments and tribal organizations.
The full report will be available Nov. 2.