Capt. Monica Alexander remembers when a woman in Spokane stood up at a community meeting convened by the Washington State Patrol in October.
It was one of nearly a dozen meetings Alexander participated in last fall to talk about missing and murdered Native American women in the state, with the goal of improving ways law enforcement interacts with Native communities and investigates missing-person cases that often involve vulnerable, marginalized women.
“She said, ‘I don’t believe what you’re telling us. We’ve heard it before and nothing came of it,’ ” Alexander recalled Tuesday. “It’s still very clear to me — I can see her face and her body language and I remember her voice. She was absolutely powerful in her statement. I’ll never ever forget her telling me that. And I couldn’t deny that hasn’t happened because I’m sure it has.”
Alexander just delivered a 36-page report to the state Legislature, summarizing the feedback and criticism she received from Native communities dealing with the long-term heartache resulting from the disappearance of women who remain lost, or have fallen victim to violence. The Washington State Patrol Missing & Murdered Native American Women Report details inconsistent reporting methods, cultural misunderstandings, distrust of government in general and police in particular, as well as a lack of easily accessible resources and communication missteps that have created barriers to collaboration with law enforcement.
“There’s a huge communication gap between the Native American community and law enforcement. That was the thing that kept coming up,” Alexander said. “They feel like no one cares and that’s a horrible feeling and it makes us (law enforcement) feel like we aren’t doing our work.”
Fifty-six Native American women from Washington are listed as missing persons in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), an electronic clearinghouse of crime data available to police officers across the country, according to the report. Yakima County had the most, with 20 women missing, followed by King County with 12. Of those 56 cases, five of them were entered into NCIC over two days in May, although it’s likely the women were reported missing earlier, said Alexander.
The report does not include a tally of Native American women murdered in the state, because the focus of the report was missing women.
During community meetings, Alexander heard from people who were told they needed to wait 24, 48 or 72 hours before reporting a loved one missing, even though there isn’t a state law that requires a waiting period before a police can take a missing-person report.
Even when a police report was filed, many family members complained they were left in the dark about the progress of an investigation, with little or no contact from detectives. Others said their concerns weren’t taken seriously by police, especially if a woman had a history of drug abuse, mental-health issues or suspected involvement in prostitution, according to Alexander and the report. Many shared their suspicions that at least some of the missing women are victims of sex trafficking who have been forced into prostitution in Canada.
“We heard a lot about potential sex trafficking and I don’t think it’s that far-fetched. I believe these things are happening,” Alexander said.
The patrol’s report is a first step in the state’s response to the growing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) movement that began with First Nations in Canada, prompting a Royal Canadian Mounted Police study in 2013 and later compelling the Canadian government to initiate a national inquiry in 2016. The inquiry’s 1,200-page final report was released Monday and concluded the thousands of cases of dead and missing women and girls was “nothing less than the deliberate, often covert campaign of genocide.”
The MMIW movement has spilled over into the U.S., and the Washington Legislature passed legislation last spring requiring the Washington State Patrol to compile data and analysis of missing Native American women. That mandate directed the patrol to convene the community meetings to determine the scope of the problem and Alexander — who represented the patrol alongside representatives from the state Attorney General’s Office and the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs — was tasked with analyzing the data and writing the report for the Legislature.
State lawmakers, in directing the state patrol to study the issue, found Native women face murder rates 10 times the national average, but noted that cases often go unreported and unsolved “because there are also very high rates of disappearance among Native American women.”
In each of the 56 missing-person cases counted by Alexander, a Native American woman was reported missing to a Washington law-enforcement agency. That agency entered information about the case into NCIC, using what is known as an originating-agency identification number, or an ORI number. Twenty-two of the state’s 29 tribes have their own ORI numbers to access NCIC, but they may also ask a neighboring jurisdiction to enter their cases into the clearinghouse because of operating fees, Alexander said. But family members have no way of knowing if their cases have been entered into NCIC, according to the report.
“I think it’s accurate, as far as what’s been reported,” she said of the 56 cases she was able to verify through NCIC. “Someone will probably say there’s way more than that and I know there’s different numbers out there. I just don’t know how to verify the different numbers.”
She pointed out only 13 of the 56 Washington cases also appear in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons Systems (NamUs), a National Institute of Justice database run by the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. Six states require police to transfer information on missing- and unidentified-person cases to NamUs but Washington isn’t one of them.
Until she began delving into the issue of missing Native American women, Alexander said she didn’t know the Patrol’s own Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit (MUPU) is the custodian for the National Dental Image Repository (NDIR) in the state. Roughly 90% of all dental records in the national repository are from Washington, because state law requires coroners and medical examiners to enter dental records into the system within 30 days of a body being found if the remains can’t be identified through other means.
But families of missing people can also send dental records to the patrol’s MUPU, which is required to keep them on file for 99 years, Alexander said. She explained the dental records repository can help identify human remains, or eliminate someone.
Creating a checklist for families of missing women — such as sending dental records — was one of the recommendations that resulted from the community meetings, Alexander said.
Moving forward, Alexander said the patrol will be hiring two Native American liaisons this summer, thanks to $545,000 in funding that was part of a bill approved during the last legislative session. The role of the liaisons will be to help build relationships between tribes and urban Indian communities, and law enforcement and other government agencies.
Signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in April, the bill also requires the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs to train state patrol staff in the government-to-government relationship with Indian tribes, addressing the tribal historical perspective, legal issues, tribal sovereignty and tribal government. The patrol has also been charged with developing a best-practices protocol for police to respond to missing-persons reports involving Native people, according to the report.
Noting there isn’t a centralized database with complete information about the state’s missing Native American women, the report also recommends studying and developing a system that would allow consistent and accurate recording of data.
“We appreciate the time and generosity of the Native American community. Without their honest and open dialogue, this process would have been deemed worthless,” the report concludes. “While everyone recognizes there is still a lot of work to do to get to the heart of this issue, we believe this work is worthy of the time necessary to be successful.”
Bob de los Angeles, chairman of the Snoqualmie Tribe, called the patrol’s report “a pretty good first step.”
“This program is in its infancy and hopefully the finer details can be fleshed out,” he said.
De los Angeles said he’s thankful more people and governments are taking notice of the larger Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s movement.
“This is a wonderful movement and I’m glad it’s taking place. It’s unfortunate it’s taken so long to be recognized by the governor and other government agencies,” he said. “I think it could have a huge impact on Native Americans.”
Correction: This story was updated Wednesday, June 5. Due to an editing error, an incorrect last name was given for Washington State Patrol Capt. Monica Alexander.