U.S. attorney: Feds push for progress to reduce cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women

(Sebastian "Vela" Velazquez | The Las Cruces Sun News via AP) In this June 4, 2019 photo, an indigenous woman takes center stage in a mural by artist Sebastian "Vela" Velazquez, erected on the Cruces Creatives building wall in Las Cruces, N.M. The new mural in southern New Mexico seeks to honor missing and slain Native Americans amid a nationwide push to bring more attention to the issue. The #MMIW hashtag atop stands for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

Santa Ana Pueblo, N.M. • Federal officials have launched multiple measures to reduce cases of missing and killed Native Americans in the past year, including boosting funding for crime victim and witness services, said a U.S. attorney who leads a Justice Department committee on tribal policy.

Yet, high victimization rates persist and law enforcement on tribal lands still lack adequate resources, said Trent Shores, who chairs a group of 53 U.S. attorneys who have jurisdiction on tribal lands.

A Choctaw citizen and the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma, Shores said a federal statistic showing Native Americans are victims of crime at twice the rate of any other demographic has stuck with him since his career with the Justice Department began in 2003.

"As we sit here today that statistic is unchanged," he said. "It's not for lack of trying. We've been getting after it, but it is just such a large problem."

Shores and other U.S. attorneys began meeting Wednesday to review law enforcement issues facing tribes — their second gathering in three months. A discussion about handling of cases of missing and killed Native Americans topped their agenda.

The three-day meeting comes amid a series of proposals in Congress awaits input from Justice Department officials as advocates seek to build awareness.

Charlaine Tso, a Navajo Nation Council delegate who testified at a recent tribal consultation session with federal officials, said she's encouraged by progress in more coordination among tribes. But she also questioned why significant progress in Washington hasn't come faster.

"What is the hold up?" she asked. "It seems like at the federal level nothing is moving as fast as it should be. That's what I truly see."

In Congress, there are more than a half-dozen measures that seek to address the disappearances of Native Americans, including boosting coordination among numerous federal agencies.

Multiple bills are awaiting votes from the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, where Republican and Democratic lawmakers have criticized Trump administration officials for missing deadlines for weighing in on the measures.

The bills also seek to expand tribes' ability to prosecute non-Native Americans in sex assault cases and crimes against law enforcement and children.

Savanna's Act — named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old who was reported missing and later found killed in Fargo, North Dakota — wants to increase tribal law enforcement's access to criminal databases.

The bill also increases data collection on cases for missing people and sets new guidelines for law enforcement's response to reports of missing Native Americans.

Shores said the Justice Department supports the goals of the bill. But final input or passage of the legislation won't come until the bills are reviewed through a complex Justice Department clearance process, he said.

In the meantime, he and other prosecutors have met with FBI leaders about responses to cases, especially those involving slain Native Americans, and are ensuring they are meeting the standard for investigations outlined in Savanna's Act, he said.

In New Mexico, U.S. Attorney John Anderson said he has assigned several new prosecutors to his Indian Country crime unit. "To me, that was a recognition of the fact that among our most pressing violent crime problems in the district of New Mexico is what we have in Indian country," Anderson said.

The Office of Inspector General last year issued a critical analysis of U.S. attorneys' prosecution rates of Indian Country cases, and recent U.S. attorneys' figures provided to Congress showed the rates had plateaued.

U.S. attorneys’ offices reported that they had declined to prosecute about 37% of Indian Country cases in 2017, the most recent year where statistics are available.