Editor’s Note: This story discusses violence against Indigenous communities. If you need to report or discuss a case, you can call the StrongHearts hotline at 1-844-7NATIVE.
There are “clear gaps” in how investigators handle the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people in Utah — with those reports often “delayed or deprioritized” by police or left in limbo because of confusion over tribal jurisdiction, according to a new state report.
The findings released last week present the first-ever deep dive into the issue in Utah by the state. The report states that while American Indians make up 1.5% of the population here, they make up a disproportionate 5% of murder victims — with that number likely an undercount.
The same disparities exist across the United States, with Indigenous women and girls, in particular, experiencing violence at higher rates than white residents. But it’s not been something Utah has studied until now, with the review from Wilder Research commissioned by the state Legislature.
“This epidemic impacts our communities so much,” said Kristina Groves, who is Hopi and Ute, as well as a therapist at the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake. “Our voices have not always been heard on it.”
The 130-page report details widespread shortcomings and failures by both legal and social services in responding to American Indian families in the state trying to get help with missing or murdered loved ones.
Some police departments, the researchers found, waited weeks or months to enter information for victims into a national database for missing persons and cold cases. Others declined to conduct a preliminary investigation when an Indigenous adult went missing, unless there were obvious signs of suspicious circumstances.
Many rural departments that the researchers looked at lacked the resources to adequately pursue a missing person case. And a few did not have the training needed to sensitively handle cases involving Indigenous cultures.
In one case, the researchers said, a police officer showed a photo of the dead — without warning — to the individual’s Navajo, or Diné, family. It caused deep distress. Many Navajos limit talking about death, according to a report from the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, and have specific protocols for when someone dies to avoid disturbing spirits.
“This is a systemic issue,” said Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City. “We have a lot of work to do.”
In response to the findings, Romero — who co-chairs the legislative Murdered and Missing Indigenous Relatives Task Force that requested the study — said she will run a bill in the upcoming session to fund a full-time state position to address the issues detailed and increase communication between Utah agencies and tribes.
To conduct their study, Wilder Research partnered with the local Restoring Ancestral Winds organization, which supports Indigenous communities in Utah in addressing domestic, dating, family and sexual violence. They also contracted with a retired FBI missing persons investigator.
The researchers held a listening session with 19 family members of missing and murdered Indigenous relatives, as well as spoke to tribal leaders across the state, attorneys and law enforcement.
Concerns with law enforcement bias
Jessie Austin, a research scientist with Wilder Research who drafted the report, told task force members that personal biases with police are likely to blame for most of these cases not being investigated properly.
“Those biases of law enforcement could mean [the victims] get overlooked,” she said.
For instance, the report states that Indigenous persons are more likely to face economic and social vulnerabilities, including poverty, homelessness and drug use. American Indians in Utah represent 6% of the population experiencing homelessness, according to the report, which used numbers from the Utah Homelessness Council.
That is part of what contributes to the higher likelihood that they will experience violence, the researchers said. And it likely also contributes to how police view a case.
Police, according to the report, tend to put fewer resources into a case of a homeless person going missing or who is murdered than a person who has more means or more connections with family and friends who will push for the case to get attention.
That is part of what’s behind the phenomenon often described as “missing white woman syndrome,” where white women who go missing get more coverage from both the media and police than cases with people of color.
One Indigenous individual who spoke to the researchers said she had a loved one go missing and didn’t feel it was taken seriously when reported because the relative had “a lifestyle that wasn’t pristine and upstanding.”
“There was drug abuse,” the individual said. “[Officers] didn’t view her as a person. They viewed her off what they thought she was from her rap sheet.”
The researchers found Indigenous people also tend to be more reluctant to report to officers because they don’t trust them and don’t believe their case will actually be investigated. It becomes a negative feedback loop, Austin said.
Utah’s eight tribes are sovereign nations. That means their land is under their jurisdiction.
But outside police agencies can respond in certain cases — depending on the crime and if there is a written agreement with the tribe. Though most cases do tend to fall in state police lines, the complicated setup causes confusion over who should be responding and when, according to the report.
Only one tribe in the state — the Navajo Nation in the southeastern corner of Utah — has its own police force. And even with that, the closest office is in Shiprock, New Mexico, which is several hours away by car, according to the report.
To cover that gap, the Nation has an agreement with the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office to handle 911 calls and provide responses on the Utah portion of the reservation.
Outside of that kind of written memorandum, the state does have jurisdiction in Indian Country when a crime involves a non-Indian perpetrator.
Otherwise, if a crime happens on tribal land, a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) or FBI agent will respond. But those responses can also be significantly delayed. The BIA, for instance, has a set number of hours allocated to each tribal community, which often get eaten up by driving long distances to the remote reservations, according to the report.
The Skull Valley Band of Goshute in eastern Utah told researchers the closest BIA agent is hours away. Sometimes, members told the researchers, they will try calling the sheriff’s office in Tooele County for a more immediate response but “it gets murky because of jurisdiction.”
One tribal representative told the researchers: “It’s a system of failure.”
Additionally, the researchers found, when a tribal member goes missing off of a reservation, some police agencies are reluctant to respond — even when it should clearly be their charge to investigate — because they are questioning jurisdiction.
Nicole MartinRogers, a White Earth Nation descendant and a research scientist who led the study for Wilder Research, said many tribes have asked for help from the state with law enforcement, but have not received a response. She encouraged state leaders to talk with tribal leaders.
Gaps in database listings and resources
Unlike with children, the report states there are no federal requirements for investigating or documenting cases of missing adults.
That causes a “lack of national standardization” in investigations across the country — where there are city, county, state and tribal law enforcements handling these cases and no uniform collection of information.
In Utah, police are required by law to report missing persons to the state registrar over vital statistics and to input them into the NCIC system — the National Crime Information Center, a database for missing individuals. But the law doesn’t specify any timelines for doing so, and there is no penalty if an agency doesn’t follow through.
The research team found that some law enforcement agencies, estimated to be about 10 across the state, choose not to participate in inputting missing persons into the database.
The report states: “When law enforcement agencies do not participate in shared data systems, it may give the impression that there are no incidents (e.g., that there are no cold cases in a particular jurisdiction).”
That also means that other nearby agencies are not aware of missing persons who they could be on the lookout for in their coverage areas.
Additionally in Utah, there are no requirements for police to conduct any kind of preliminary investigation when a missing person case is reported. Austin said some agencies respond with a rigorous effort when a person is missing. Some respond by saying an adult has the right to disappear, and they won’t act until there is information to suggest foul play was involved.
Another part of that is whether a department has the resources to invest in a missing person case. The report states that those in rural areas, in particular, which are closer to most tribes in the states, tend to lack expertise and personnel for investigating, as well as training for handling cultural cases.
There is currently a cold case review board in the state, where once a month investigators can present their unresolved cases before a team of 30 experts. The onus is still on the individual and the agency to solve the case, but the board can provide suggestions and feedback, according to the report.
The researchers recommend that the state develop a cold case unit, where instead of reviewing cases, a team would work together to reopen cases and examine them. Currently, the Utah Department of Public Safety does not have a group like that to comprehensively look at cold cases statewide.
Tamra Borchardt-Slayton, a council member for the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, said the report is just a first step for resolving the issues and better addressing the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people in the state.
“Every single one of us has a story like this,” she said. “I have a story like this in my family. It brings trauma. … We need justice for the victims and justice for the families.”
The report lists several recommendations for the state, including the position Rep. Romero is hoping to create to oversee improvements in communicating with tribes and to help track all cases involving Indigenous victims, so no one falls through the cracks.
The researchers also suggest:
• Developing plans with each tribe, so leaders can communicate what help they would like from the state or from local law enforcement. That would include creating memorandums for joint policing jurisdiction.
• Require police departments to conduct a preliminary investigation into every missing persons case.
• Create a system to share information on missing persons and cold cases across law enforcement agencies in the state and tribal law enforcement agencies. And put teeth into the law requiring agencies to post cases on NCIC to ensure all departments are doing so.
• Train police officers on how to handle cases involving culture with sensitivity.
• Consider funding forensics labs and technology for rural police departments so they can better investigate these cases.
• Look at ways to prevent these crimes, such as strengthening anti-trafficking laws.