Commentary: Confront violence against Native American women

Congress can improve law enforcement coordination with tribes and set new rules for reporting crime.

By Bloomberg editors

Americans may be largely unaware of the extreme and pervasive dangers facing American Indian and Alaska Native women.

According to a National Institute of Justice study, more than half have been sexually assaulted. More than a third have been raped, a proportion more than double that of white women. For girls and young women aged 15 to 24, homicide is the third leading cause of death. And thousands of American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls have simply gone missing.

It is a crisis that has been too long ignored. The federal government funds police services, criminal investigation, detention facilities, tribal courts and more. But the assistance has been stretched too thin to bring crimes against women under control.

One underlying problem is that many tribal law enforcement agencies are severely understaffed, yet need to police vast territories. The Navajo reservation, with roughly 350,000 residents on 17 million acres across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, has fewer than 200 police officers and 30 criminal investigators. That’s a police-to-population ratio significantly lower than the national average. Yet the reservation’s murder rate is many times higher than the average.

Another problem unique to tribal law enforcement is jurisdictional confusion. A crime on or near reservation land can cross the desk of tribal officers, local police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and state police, leading to delays and miscues in investigations. In one instance in 2016, when a girl was kidnapped in New Mexico, poor coordination among police authorities led to an eight-hour delay in issuing an Amber Alert.

Outside of reservations, too, American Indian and Alaska Native women face extraordinary danger. Many who live in cities end up missing or killed, and city police departments often do a poor job of tracking them. A study by the Urban Indian Health Institute identified 153 missing or dead women whose cases did not exist in law enforcement records, and cited more than one police department whose reports conflated American Indians and Indian-Americans. Until they have good data on the violence done to American Indian and Alaska Native women, police will struggle to end it.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, have just reintroduced legislation to focus attention and resources on the problem. Named “Savanna’s Act” in honor of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old who was murdered in North Dakota in 2017, the bill would require, among other things, annual consultations between U.S. attorneys and Indian tribes on sexual violence, training and technical assistance for tribal police, and new rules for reporting and sharing crime data and responding to violent crimes. In addition, last week Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, proposed a bill directing the Government Accountability Office to review federal agencies’ response to the crisis and to recommend solutions.

These would be modest first steps toward improving relations between tribal authorities and state and federal law enforcement, gathering crucial crime data, and funding tribal government efforts to protect indigenous women and girls. Congress should pass the legislation without delay.

The above editorial appears on Bloomberg Opinion.

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