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MMIW task force hears from experts and advocates on the legal challenges in missing person cases

A woman and a man wearing masks sit at a draped table with microphones.
Utah legislative Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Task Force
Task force co-chairs Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, and Sen. David Hinkins, R-Ferron, hear testimony from legal experts on the challenges of investigating cases of missing and murdered women on the Navajo Nation.

People gathered at the Bluff Community Center in San Juan County Saturday morning to address Utah’s Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls Task Force.

The Legislature created the group in response to the Indigenous women and girls who go missing in Utah each year.

The National Crime Information Center found that in 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls across the country. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database — NamUs — only logged 116 cases.

“We've started [the task force] a year ago to try to minimize the impact that this has had on not just the people on the Navajo reservation, but throughout the state of Utah that had come up missing,” said Sen. David Hinkins, R-Ferron.

Co-chairs Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, and Hinkins heard from individuals, legal experts and law enforcement on the challenges of the current system.

During the five hour meeting, several members of the public spoke about their frustration with the Navajo police. Many said the system often fails them with long response times to critical incidents or not documenting reports of intimate partner violence.

Michael Henderson, director of criminal investigations for the Navajo Police, described his department's process when someone goes missing.

He said one of the biggest challenges is timely reporting and communication with the family, which can determine the success of a case.

Henderson told the task force they need to know more about the phenomenon and prevention, but they don’t have the resources to understand the root of the problem.

“We don't have any analysts. We don't have any criminologists or crime analysts to go dig around in it and tell us the answers to these questions that we have,” Henderson said. “This is something for the future [that] we are addressing and working on, to create some of these positions for the Police Department for Criminal Investigations.”

He said his department has been working to cross commission neighboring law enforcement agencies — including some in Utah — to assist the Navajo Nation in solving cases.

Heather Tanana, a research professor at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, explained the jurisdiction challenges related to crimes on tribal lands that can complicate investigations.

She said a case can be impacted by who's involved, where it takes place and the type of crime it is — whether it falls under the Major Crimes Act or not. The Major Crimes Act gives the federal government jurisdiction over certain crimes that have taken place on the Navajo Nation.

Tanana said tribal courts are also limited because they cannot prosecute someone who is non-Native.

“Over the past several decades, that [power] has been diminished through interpretations [of] the U.S. Supreme Court and Congressional acts,” she said.

Navajo Council Delegate Charlaine Tso spoke about her search for Navajo elder Ella Mae Begay. Begay, 62, went missing from her residence in Sweetwater, Arizona, this summer.

Tso said this issue is deeply personal to her and the community.

“We have this adrenaline and determination to find her, to bring her home,” she said. “And that is the reminder that I have every day when I go home … this is real and it's happening.”

She said she’s had discussions with Navajo Nation police to provide more training for their officers to properly respond to these cases. She was told that it comes back to the question of resources and funding.

Corrected: November 22, 2021 at 10:51 AM MST
This story has been updated to correct the name of Utah's Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls task force.
Ivana is a general assignment reporter
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