When a person goes missing, it puts an enormous strain on their loved ones. It can also put a strain on small-town law enforcement agencies tasked with trying to locate that person.
The problem is especially stressful for the families of Indigenous people.
The state Legislature, a statewide task force and the Attorney General’s office have been studying the issue over the last two years and have made a recommendation: The state should create a permanent unit in the AG’s office dedicated to helping investigate cold cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people.
This proposal, in the form of House Bill 1177 and its companion bill Senate Bill 5137, is decades overdue and deserves bipartisan approval in the Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature.
Indigenous people are the focus of about 5% of the unsolved murdered and missing person cases in Washington, while making up only 2% of the state’s population.
Part of the problem is the sex trafficking trade, along with the cultural and jurisdictional fault lines that Indigenous people sometimes meet when engaging with law enforcement. Many of those issues are highlighted in sustained coverage by the Yakima Herald-Republic and a Seattle Times docuseries.
The AG’s investigative unit would focus its work on requests from local and tribal law enforcement agencies to help solve cases of missing Indigenous people, which number around 136. Some of the cold cases date back decades, at least one back to the 1950s.
The AG’s Office of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force’s other recommendations include: Have all law enforcement agencies identify and implement strategies to improve communications and transparency with family members of missing or murdered Indigenous people; and extend the timeline for the task force through June 30, 2025.
The Legislature established the task force to understand and address the systemic causes of violence against Indigenous people. Extending the task force will help the new unit and local law enforcement stay engaged with stakeholders as the unit gets up and running.
To create the unit, the AG’s office has requested funding for four investigators, a prosecutor, a case navigator and legal assistant at about $2.2 million over the first two years. This would be money well spent.
The state needs culturally informed, professional investigators to tackle these cases and give the families what some have been waiting decades for: hope, closure and justice.
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