Cortez Masto introduces bill to strengthen Tribal law enforcement
Activists marching in Los Angeles in 2019. The legislation would address federal breakdowns that undermine the tribal law enforcement’s ability to effectively investigate federal cases of missing and murdered Indigenous persons. (Photo by Sarah Morris/Getty Images)
Across the United States Native women and girls are taken or murdered at rates far greater than other demographics, and thousands of cases remain unsolved.
On Thursday, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto introduced bipartisan legislation to combat the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
The bill, introduced along with Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, would address federal breakdowns that undermine the tribal law enforcement’s ability to effectively investigate federal cases of missing and murdered Indigenous persons.
“I’m doing all I can to ensure that Tribal law enforcement agencies have what they need to serve their communities, recruit and train officers, and bring perpetrators to justice,” said Cortez Masto in a statement. “My bill will give Tribal law enforcement access to more federal resources and improve coordination across agencies, strengthening public safety and protecting Native families.”
Part of the issue is confusion over jurisdictional authority. Tribal officials generally lack the legal authority to conduct investigations off-reservation or to bring charges against non-tribal individuals who commit crimes against their citizens. Lack of resources to investigate serious crimes may also hinder tribal law enforcement.
Tribal communities are also considered sovereign nations, meaning state or local authorities may not take action on a case leaving tribes with few options to seek justice for crimes against their citizens.
Women living on reservations are murdered at a rate ten times higher than the national average, and is the third leading cause of death for Native women, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Crime Information Center also found that Indigenous women experience 10 times more violence than the national average.
Interior Secretary Debra Haaland, the first Indigenous person to lead the agency, recently created a Missing & Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services in response to the growing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement.
The Bridging Agency Data Gaps & Ensuring Safety (BADGES) for Native Communities Act would fund a grant program to support investigations into murdered and missing Indigenous peoples, as well as sexual assault cases.
Under the bill, tribal liaisons would be required to serve as a point of contact between tribes and law enforcement agencies and increase tribal access to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a centralized database for missing persons cases that also provides technology and resources to family members.
Lack of communication between the federal government and tribal law enforcement has hindered progress, an issue the legislation would address by requiring a federal report on tribal law enforcement needs, including staffing, infrastructure needs, and technology needs. Evaluations of federal law enforcement evidence collection and conviction rates would also be established under the legislation.
In the statement announcing the legislation, Cortez Masto and Hoeven expressed optimism about the Senate Indian Affairs Committee passing the bill in the coming months with bipartisan support. The bill also has the endorsement of the National Congress of American Indians , the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, the Seattle Indian Health Board, and Amnesty International USA.
Cortez Masto previously teamed up with Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski to secure passage of the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act, which were signed into law to protect Native women and girls.
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