WA is working on an Amber Alert for missing Indigenous people

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Rep. Debra Lekanoff are proposing a bill that would disseminate critical information more quickly and effectively.

A woman stands with her fist in the air

A member of the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women's contingent leads the Seattle Women's March 2.0 in Seattle, Jan. 20, 2018. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Alice Looney, a Yakama tribal citizen, aunty and the beloved youngest sibling of six sisters and five brothers, was reported missing on Aug. 16, 2004. Her skeletal remains were found more than 15 months later, under a log in Satus Creek. 

Now her niece, Rosalie Fish, is among advocates of a bill that would establish an alert system specifically for missing and murdered Indigenous women and people much like Amber and Silver alerts.

Creating visibility

“This bill addresses the lack of resources and negligence that missing Indigenous people’s cases have faced thus far,” said Fish, a member of the Cowlitz Tribe who grew up on the Muckleshoot reservation, during a January public hearing for House Bill 1725 in the Washington Legislature. “This bill prioritizes the lives of our communities, our family members, our loved ones and our children.” 

The Amber Alert system alerts the public of a possible child abduction. Silver Alerts assist in recovering missing endangered people 60 or older. Both have had great success in Washington. Like Silver Alerts, HB 1725 would become a part of the Endangered Missing Person Advisory plan and involve radio and television stations, cable and satellite systems, and social media platforms to enhance the public's ability to assist in recovery efforts of missing Indigenous people. 

Members of the Washington State Association of Broadcasters and the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington support the bill. During the Jan. 14 public hearing, held before the House Public Safety Committee, Mark Allen of the broadcasters association spoke as a proud and active partner in the alert systems and was excited about the high visibility this new alert would bring to missing and murdered Indigenous people.

In 2018, an Urban Indian Health Institute report stated that “over two-thirds of the cases that happen in urban areas are rendered invisible” by a lack of media coverage, biased reporting, inadequate record-keeping and racial misclassifications by law enforcement. Of all the cities surveyed, Seattle had the highest number of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls — 45 cases. Next came Albuquerque, New Mexico, at 37, and Anchorage, Alaska, at 31.

“In my work with the tribes and social services in Indian child welfare, I know the alarming rate that our young girls and boys are targeted,” said Catherine Edwards, vice president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, at a January hearing. “I can't begin to imagine the pain of waiting for our daughter to come home from the store to never get to see her again. What it must be like to wonder if she is alive or not.” 

The Tlingit and Haida tribes are the fourth largest in Washington, with more than 7,000 citizens who have made the state their home, according to Edwards.

The role of law enforcement

Edwards mentioned the case of Gabby Petito, a white woman who went missing during a road trip with her fiance last June. Her disappearance garnered international and national news coverage. Her body was eventually found in Wyoming, where 710 Indigenous people had been reported missing since 2011. Unlike Petito, there was little to no local and national media coverage for those missing Indigenous people’s lives. Indigenous communities have pointed to this bias because their citizens often struggle to get law enforcement attention, Edwards said. 

Law enforcement is interwoven in every step of the state Amber Alert system. So, for HB 1725 to be successful, law enforcement attention and cooperation are critical. Decisions regarding the state alert systems are made by an advisory committee including the Washington State Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. The chair of the committee is a representative of the State Patrol. Chief John Batiste of the Washington State Patrol is the state Amber Alert manager and has final decision-making authority over all aspects of the statewide plan. 

Many Washington law enforcement departments have a history of bias against Indigenous citizens. An analysis by InvestigateWest in 2019 revealed that from 2009 to 2015, Native Americans were searched by the Washington State Patrol more than five times the rate of whites, even though the analysis found that whites were more likely to have contraband when searched. A 2021 Washington State University study also found that Native Americans are searched at higher rates. 

New legislation sponsored by state Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, in 2018 required the State Patrol and the Governor's Office of Indian Affairs to meet with tribal and local law enforcement and work with federally recognized tribes in a government-to-government capacity and partner to study and determine how to increase reporting and investigation of missing Indigenous women. In 2019, Mosbrucker sponsored new legislation requiring further collaboration, which, among other things, created two tribal liaisons within the State Patrol to build relationships and increase trust.

Washington state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, speaks during a bill signing ceremony for a measure that expands voting services on tribal reservations, Thursday, March 14, 2019, at the Capitol in Olympia, Washington. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Justice, accountability and healing

According to state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, HB 1725 builds upon the foundation of those bills and continues to build trust and increase collaboration between the State Patrol and tribal communities. Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson is working with Lekanoff, the only Indigenous representative in the state Legislature, to pass this bill.

“Bill 1725 is one step in a long journey towards justice, accountability and healing,” Annie Forsman-Adams said on behalf of Ferguson’s office at a January public hearing. She serves in the office as the policy analyst for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force. “This bill engages with law enforcement in a creative way that starts to address some of the disparity and disseminate information [in a] timely [fashion] and effectively. By increasing the tools of law enforcement and the media have available, we can begin to change the outcomes for missing Indigenous people.”

The Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and People Task Force consists of representatives of Washington’s federally recognized tribes, urban Native organizations, local government, law enforcement and Indigenous community members who have lost loved ones or been otherwise impacted by the epidemic of missing and murdered women and people. The Attorney General’s Office launched the task force during the National Missing, Murdered Indigenous Women Day of Remembrance last year to assess systemic factors for such high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women and people.

The task force’s decision to name women specifically before “people” is intentional. Like the acronym “BIPOC” which stands for Black, Indigenous and people of color, Black and Indigenous people are named first because they are the most impacted. What study after study has shown is that Indigenous women are the most impacted by violence, which results in a greater number of missing and murdered women compared with other Indigenous demographics.

Barriers to implementation

Part of the task force’s role is to assess and identify the tools, training and barriers to effectively implement the new alert system, much like the 2018 Department of Justice assessment on nationwide issues with the Ashlynne Mike Amber (AMA) Alert system in Indian Country. The AMA Alert system in Indian Country was implemented after 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike was abducted on the Navajo Nation reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico. It took 12 hours from when she was reported missing for an Amber Alert to be issued. This new law was put in place to bridge that gap by creating tribal eligibility for federal grants so that tribes can implement tribal Amber Alert systems that coordinate with the state Amber Alert system, but major gaps remain. 

The implementation assessment of the AMA Alert system revealed a lack of infrastructure, such as radio, broadcasting and road signs; staffing shortages; and a lack of technological resources, including computers and software, as challenges to integrating with state Amber Alert plans. Difficulties reaching people across reservations with a large expanse of diverse terrain was also listed. 

“Given the lack of critical infrastructure in Indian country and especially on the Colville reservation, voluntary cooperation will not close the gap,” said Karen Condon, an elected member of the Colville Business Council, who spoke on behalf of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, during a January hearing. Condon also shared the Colville reservation’s request that the final activation authority decisions for MMIWP alerts be joint decisions between the State Patrol and tribes. 

Members of the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women's contingent lead the Seattle Women's March 2.0 in Seattle, Jan. 20, 2018. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Moving forward

The Colville reservation requests were not addressed in the substitute to the bill. The State Patrol request that the bill detail the criteria for information that would be displayed on reader boards in order to find the missing Indigenous person has not been addressed either. Without consultation with the attorney general, Lekanoff, the task force or the local urban Native organizations adamant about the language of HB 1725 being “Indigenous women and people alert,” it was changed to an “Indigenous people alert.” On Jan. 28 the bill passed unanimously in the House and now awaits consideration in the Senate. 

“We'll continue to move forward and stay positive and know that at the end of the day, it's helping the women that we can't hear,” Lekanoff said of the language change. “I gotta keep my eye on the ball.” 

For Lekanoff, the most beautiful part of this bill is that it is bringing people together to create change. 

“It reminds Washingtonians of our values,” Lekanoff said. “It reminds Washingtonians of who we are, of taking care of one another. No matter who we are, what color we are, who we love, what language we speak. When it comes to hearing the unheard screams of these Native American women, the Republican, the Democrat, the Senate and the House recognize that this [bill] is important.”

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