Photo depicting a row of Indigenous women dressed in traditional wear with red hands painted over their mouths.

Changes Needed to Improve Police Response to Missing Indigenous Persons Cases

by Elizabeth Turnbull

On Thursday, May 19, Seattle City Councilmembers and organizers with the Seattle Indian Health Board urged the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to change its racial identification protocol and to collaborate with local tribal law enforcement in order to better respond to missing and murdered Indigenous person cases. 

According to the Washington State Patrol, as of mid-May this year, there were 132 missing Native Americans in the state. Of this number, the majority of missing juveniles were female, 35, compared to 21 males, and the majority of missing adults were male, 40, compared to 35 females. 

“These cases have been largely forgotten, not by the families, but mainly by greater society and law enforcement,” City Council President Debora Juarez said at Thursday’s meeting. “… I’m anticipating we’re gonna have a few more follow-ups, because we’re not going to let this go.”

In 2019, Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, introduced Resolution 31900, which was later passed, in order to ensure City departments are accountable to guidance from Seattle’s urban Indian community and to improve City data collection and classification methods of these cases, among other things. 

At the monthly Governance, Native Communities & Tribal Governments meeting on Thursday, members of the police department’s data analysis team presented research, and members of the Seattle Indian Health Board addressed some of the issues they had observed in the department’s protocols thus far.

As part of a follow-up to the resolution, Christina Diego, policy program director at the Seattle Indian Health Board, presented the Board’s first-year assessments of SPD’s practices in processing missing person cases, which will be followed by an assessment of how SPD handles the murder cases of American Indian and Alaska Native People, according to Diego.

As part of the assessment, Diego presented recommendations that the Board gave to the police department. Among them, it recommended that SPD standardize the collection of American Indian and Alaska Native race and ethnicity in their protocols and that the department collect self-identified ethnic identities rather than relying on the perception of 911 callers. 

In addition, the Board recommended that SPD allow individuals to identify as multiracial — something not currently in place — as many American Indian and Alaska Native people have more than one racial background. They also recommended that the police department should collect tribal affiliations. 

To address issues of racial misclassification, the Seattle Indian Health Board recommended that SPD conduct a forensic audit and that it should provide training related to American Indian and Alaska Native communities as well as the missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) crisis, among other recommendations. 

In the briefing, Juarez and SPD’s data analyst referenced launching a website and data dashboard where the public can get information regarding these cases. However, it was not clear when and if this launch would take place. 

Efforts to address the missing and murdered Indigenous people crisis go beyond the local level, and after the State passed a bill in March, which created the country’s first alert system in response to missing Indigenous people — similar to the AMBER alert system — the Seattle Police Department is currently working on revamping its policy in accordance with the bill, according to interim Chief Adrian Diaz.

In order to truly respond to these cases, Juarez believes, and specifically emphasized, the need for collaboration between Seattle police and local tribal law enforcement as key to solving these cases. 

“The whole point, to address a national issue, is that in Indian country, with people missing there, we don’t distinguish between city limits and state lines,” Juarez said. “And so I’m gonna really push hard on that.”

Elizabeth Turnbull is a journalist with reporting experience in the U.S. and the Middle East. She has a passion for covering human-centric issues and doing so consistently.

📸 Featured Image: Laverne Wise, center, and her daughter Jessica Dominy, left, wear the symbol of the red hand on their faces to acknowledge missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, during a rally celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day at Westlake Park in Seattle, Washington, on Oct. 14, 2019. (Photo: Susan Fried)

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