PABLO, Mont.— Attorney General William Barr announced the plan, known as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Initiative, during a visit Friday with tribal leaders and law enforcement officials on the Flathead Reservation in Montana.
The nationwide plan is to address the crisis of missing and slain Native American women as concerns mount over the level of violence they face.
The Justice Department’s new initiative would invest $1.5 million to hire specialized coordinators in 11 U.S. attorney’s offices across the U.S. with significant Indian Country caseloads. The coordinators would be responsible for developing protocols for a better law enforcement response to missing persons cases.
Tribal or local law enforcement officials would also be able to call on the FBI for additional help in some missing indigenous persons cases. The FBI could then deploy some of its specialized teams, including investigators who focus on child abduction or evidence collection and special agents who can help do a quick analysis of digital evidence and social media accounts.
“We are going to proceed and hire, in fact we’re hiring now, MMIP coordinators for 11 United States Attorney’s offices that have significant Indian country caseloads,” Barr said. Montana’s coordinator, a former FBI agent, has already started in his position.
Coordinators will set up protocols for special FBI response teams.
“A tribal, local or state law enforcement agency can request expert assistance from the FBI-based on specific circumstances of the missing person case, and the FBI will have a variety of resources available for deployment depending on the circumstances.”
Barr said that the Justice Department will also begin analyzing all available missing persons databases and reporting practices to get a sense of other actions that could help solve cases. This comes as Savanna’s Act passed out of committee this week and is headed for the U.S. Senate Floor. The bill would require the Attorney General’s office to take many of the actions Barr talked about, but he said the Justice Department wanted to get out ahead of the bill.
Tribal officials said they were happy action was being taken but Kootenai Culture Committee Director Vernon Finley mentioned how the lack of action in the past has made Native people feel undervalued compared to their white counterparts who go missing.
Finley asked “Our people, the value that they feel in our country when they see the type of coverage and they see the type of activity that happens over one person over 1,000. Are we one-thousandth less?”
Barr did not provide a clear timeline for the Justice Department’s efforts, but said they would likely inform future actions aimed at combating violence against Native-Americans, something he said President Donald Trump is also invested in pursuing.
“This is not a panacea,” Barr told tribal council members of the Salish and Kootenai Confederated Tribes at an event where members presented him with a blue blanket before a traditional musical performance. “This is a step in the right direction, but we have a lot more work to do working together.”
Barr said he spoke to President Donald Trump about the initiative, which calls for some of the same things already in legislation pending in Congress. He also spoke to tribal leaders about how a surge in methamphetamine use may be influencing violence in Indian Country.
On the nation’s largest Native American reservation, tribal members welcomed the extra resources and commitment to the issue but questioned how far the money will go, given how widespread the problem is.
“This is stuff we’ve been advocating for, it’s just funding a slice of it,” said Amber Crotty, a lawmaker on the Navajo Nation.