In response to advocates who say the Navajo Nation isn’t doing enough to help families looking for missing loved ones, the nation recently announced plans to improve missing persons investigations.
The Navajo Division of Public Safety has requested funding for seven victim advocates, as well as a data analyst dedicated to working on missing person cases. Though Navajo Nation President Jonathon Nez has described this as a new unit, Navajo Nation Police Chief Phillip Francisco says it will augment his division’s current work.
“It’s not really like a stand alone brand new thing, it’s to supplement our current [Police Department] structure to help us manage those cases better,” he said.
The data analyst will look for trends and patterns in missing persons cases across the reservation, in addition to communicating with victim advocates, who will work directly with families, according to Francisco.
Francisco said the division is also working to increase data sharing between their departments. Currently, the police use a digital database to keep track of cases, which is separate from the paper files used by criminal investigators. Efforts to merge the two databases are underway, according to Francisco, and will be completed by the end of the year.
Once the databases are bridged, police will be able to follow up on cases that they’ve handed off to investigators, Francisco said.
Poor communication between residents and the police has long been an issue when it comes to missing persons investigations, according to activist Meskee Yanabah Yatsayte, who runs a Facebook page called Navajo Nation Missing Persons Updates.
“What we need is a tip line,” she said. “A lot of people say that they call in to report a tip and they’re not being given to the right person. It’s just really bad customer service.”
Yatsayte started the Facebook page after seeing posts about missing people on local swap and ‘for sale’ Facebook pages.
“I shared what people were putting in the swap groups. And that was it, I was out there trying to help people,” she said.
Today, the group has more Facebook followers than the Navajo Nation President. Yatsayte and five other volunteers run the page, which acts as a clearinghouse for information about anyone who has gone missing on or around the Navajo Nation. It also includes links to other resources, such as a text alert system created by Yatsayte in 2017.
Similar to Amber Alerts, Turquoise Alerts are sent for missing or endangered minors. The group has also created Britany Alerts for missing or endangered adults with developmental or physical disabilities, and Sterling Alerts for missing or endangered elders.
“These are unofficial text alerts. They don’t have to be approved by federal or state [authorities]. If I want to send them out, I send them out,” Yatsayte said.
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty founded a group called the Missing and Murdered Diné Relatives Forum this year to help coordinate efforts like these with efforts by the Navajo Nation and its police.
In addition to pushing for the missing persons unit within the Division of Public Safety, Crotty’s group is working with a nonprofit called Sovereign Bodies Institute to create a database of Navajo people who go missing on and off the reservation.
“[The families of missing persons] are really guiding us,” she said. “And now, as leadership, we’re listening, changing policies, reevaluating how we use our funding.”
Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County.
Correction 10:01 p.m. MDT 8/28/19: A previous version of this story misnamed the Facebook page for Navajo Nations Missing Persons Updates. It also incorrectly listed the number of administrators on that page. The story has been updated with corrected information.