Washington Governor Jay Inslee recently signed a law that will create an alert system for missing indigenous people.
The law attempts to address a growing crisis of missing indigenous people — primarily women — across the state by creating an alert system similar to Amber Alerts or “silver alerts,” which alert law enforcement and community members of missing children or vulnerable adults.
Democratic Representative Debra Lekanoff, a member of the Tlingit tribe, sponsored the bill, which was applauded by tribal leaders from across the state.
“I am proud to say that the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s and People’s Alert System came from the voices of our Native American leaders,” Lekanoff said. “It’s not just an Indian issue, it’s not just an Indian responsibility. Our sisters, our aunties, our grandmothers are going missing every day … and it’s been going on for far too long.”
The alert system will notify regional law enforcement agencies of reports of missing indigenous persons, as well as place messages on highway reader boards and on radio and social media channels. The alerts will also be transmitted to news media organizations.
Inslee also signed a second bill requiring medical examiners and coroners to identify and notify family members of murdered indigenous people and to return their remains. In addition, the bill creates two grant funds for services to help survivors of indigenous human trafficking.
The bill seeks to help coroners properly identify victims as Native American rather than mistakenly identifying them as White or Hispanic.
According to a 2021 report by the Government Accountability Office, the number of missing or murdered indigenous people is often under-reported due to distrust of law enforcement and jurisdictional issues.
The report went on to state that Native American women are murdered at a rate three times that of White women, and in Washington, the rate of missing people for indigenous people is four times that of their white counterparts.
Experts say that law enforcement investigations are often hampered because of jurisdictional and logistical conflicts between tribal police and local/state police. In addition, tribal police departments are often lacking in sufficient resources.
The alert system, which goes into effect on June 9, will help to facilitate communication and cooperation between tribal and non-tribal law enforcement agencies. It also allows non-tribal agencies to flag cases for their tribal partners by expanding the definition of “missing endangered person” to include indigenous people.
The alert system is the latest step taken to address the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous people.
The Washington State Patrol launched a database of Native Americans who have gone missing. As part of the initiative, the WSP Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit (MUPU) collects information about the missing person in a “data packet” from consenting family members in order to further investigative efforts.
In addition, the state also created a special task force to investigate missing and murdered indigenous women and people and to investigate the causes behind the issue.
Its first report is expected to be finalized by August.