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State task force releases first recommendations regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women and people

Patsy Whitefoot, a member of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force, talks at a news conference Monday in Seattle.  (TVW)
Patsy Whitefoot, a member of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force, talks at a news conference Monday in Seattle. (TVW)

OLYMPIA – Creating a new cold case unit specifically for missing and murdered Indigenous people. Improving communication for family members. Helping law enforcement to better coordinate with local, state and tribal health and social services.

Those are just a few of the initial recommendations from Washington’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force.

At a Monday news conference in Seattle, Attorney General Bob Ferguson, task force members Patsy Whitefoot, Abigail Echo-Hawk and state Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, shared their recommendations.

“Today this task force puts forward recommendation that says ‘justice isn’t for tomorrow. Justice is now, and we will fight for it,’ ” Echo-Hawk said Monday.

The task force was formed by the Legislature to address systemic causes behind the high rate of disappearances and murders of Indigenous people. In Washington, more than four times as many Indigenous women go missing than white women, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle.

“Gender-based violence continues to plague our nation, and our state is no different,” Dhingra said.

The task force has been meeting regularly since December. Monday’s release is the first of two reports the 25-member task force will release for the governor and Legislature. The second is expected in June 2023. Task force members include state legislators, tribal members and local politicians.

One of the first recommendations made by the task force is establishing a fully funded cold case unit within the attorney general’s office that focuses on murdered and missing Indigenous women and people. The new unit would need to be funded by the Legislature, though Dhingra and Ferguson did not say Monday how much they would be asking for next session.

The coordination and resources of a new unit is essential to bring justice to many families whose cases have gone cold, Ferguson said Monday.

Echo-Hawk said there are too many cold cases in Washington involving Indigenous people.

“Because as a result of the institutional and structural racism within law enforcement, our people were not seeing investigations and our loved ones were dying in silence,” she said.

Better data

Another ask from the task force is ensuring law enforcement is collecting the right data on race and ethnicity to better track these cases.

The Legislature this year unanimously passed a law creating a statewide alert system for missing Indigenous people, the first of its kind in the country. It’s a similar system to that of silver alerts.

But Echo-Hawk said that system only works if law enforcement is tracking cases properly by race and ethnicity.

“We know that is still a problem, and while we will see some tremendous success when this is fully implemented, unless race and ethnicity is being collected by law enforcement, it won’t matter,” Echo-Hawk said.

Dhingra said there is a lot of work ahead of them about data because racial misclassification of victims happens often.

Roxanne White, a Nez Perce tribal member who was raised on the Yakama Nation Reservation, criticized the task force Monday for not doing a better job of notifying the community about gatherings, such as the one to announce the recommendations.

She said she had only heard about it three days ago. She encouraged the task force to work with grassroots efforts on this issue.

“I feel very bad that there’s not a lot of families here,” White said.

Echo-Hawk agreed that the work has to be led by the families of those involved, and one way to help ensure that happens is extending the task force.

The task force is authorized and funded through 2023 but members recommended Monday that the Legislature extend that timeline through June 30, 2025.

The recommendations released Monday are just the beginning, Ferguson said.

“The work is far from over,” Ferguson said. “This crisis has been going on for generations and making the necessary changes to solve it will not be easy and will take time.”

The 10 recommendations to the governor and the Legislature announced Monday are as follows:

  • Establishing a fully funded cold case unit within the attorney general’s office that focuses on murdered and missing Indigenous people cases.
  • Requiring all law enforcement agencies to use the National Missing and Unidentified Persons system.
  • Expanding the scope of missing and murdered Indigenous women and people data to all genders.
  • Developing best practices for law enforcement agencies and federal, state, county, local and tribal social and health services to use to collaborate and coordinate investigations.
  • Using inclusive language that reflects the experiences of families and survivors.
  • Improving communication and transparency with family members involved in these cases.
  • Updating the Attorney General Office’s online guide for assisting families who have missing loved ones.
  • Reducing or waiving fees for public events related to these cases.
  • Continuing to support tribal sovereignty and self-determination.
  • Extending the
  • task force timeline through June 30, 2025.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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