Cold case unit proposed in AG’s office to investigate missing and murdered indigenous people

The Washington State Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People (MMIWP) Task Force issued its first report on Monday, including 10 unanimously adopted recommendations to begin addressing gaps in response when it comes to violence committed against indigenous people.

The task force comprises 25 people and is facilitated by the Attorney General’s Office.

One top recommendation from the MMIWP Task Force is for lawmakers to fully fund a cold case unit within the AG’s office that focuses on cases involving indigenous people.

“It will be the first of its kind across the country,” said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “What we’re hearing from them is, we have these cold cases. Why is no one looking into it? And we heard that over and over again. That’s why we’re stepping up to say hey, let’s put that in my office,” he said.

Carolyn DeFord’s mother disappeared in 1999. One day, she went to the grocery store and never made it home.

“My mother Leona LeClair Kinsey is missing,” DeFord said. “I want closure and justice. Justice being that the person who is responsible is held accountable,” she said.

“Our mothers are kind of our tethers in the world to where we fit. And when that is gone, you’re families are left to kind of left to re-identify who they are without that matriarch, without that elder,” DeFord said.

“Because of the result of the institutional and structural racism across law enforcement, our people were not seeing investigations and our loved ones were dying in silence,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle.

Through its work, the task force identified a number of barriers that impact the response to violence against Indigenous people, including:

  • Inter-jurisdictional issues creating gaps in communication between families and law enforcement;
  • Cross-jurisdictional rules that limit tribal law enforcement access to valuable investigative tools to combat violence;
  • Racial misclassification of Indigenous people in data;
  • Limited access to service programs for families, who often do not know what services are available to them; and
  • Limitations on what survivor service organizations can provide to MMIWP families.

The task force has made 10 recommendations on addressing those issues to the governor and the Legislature.

According to the AG’s office, the recommendations are:

  • Establishing a fully funded MMIWP-focused cold case unit within the Attorney General’s Office — the Legislature should establish and fully fund a Cold Case Investigation Unit within the Attorney General’s Office with a focus on MMIWP cold cases.
  • Standardizing the use of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System — the Legislature should require all law enforcement agencies to use the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
  • Expanding the scope of MMIWP data and research to all genders — the data and research team should expand its scope to understand how American Indian and Alaska Native people experience violence across the gender spectrum, including women and girls, men and boys, and the LGBTQ2S community.
  • Working with law enforcement agencies to expand coordination — the task force shall develop best practices for law enforcement agencies and for social and health services to improve their collaboration, as well as collaboration and coordination with federal, state, county, local and tribal social and health services.
  • Promoting inclusive language — community service and resource programs should utilize inclusive language that reflects the experiences of MMIWP families and survivors.
  • Improving communication and transparency in MMIWP cases — all law enforcement agencies should identify and implement strategies and practices to improve communication and transparency with family members in MMIWP cases.
  • Updating the Missing Person’s Resource — the Attorney General’s Office shall update and re-issue the Missing Person’s Resource.
  • Reducing or waiving fees for MMIWP public events — public agencies should consider adopting policies to waive or reduce fees for parks, permitting fees and other costs, and reduce administrative burdens associated with hosting large events such as MMIWP marches, rallies, vigils and memorials.
  • Continuing to support sovereignty and self-determination — the task force will continue to provide consultation to federally recognized tribes in support of sovereignty and self-determination.
  • Extending the MMIWP Task Force timeline through June 30, 2025 — the task force is currently only authorized and funded through 2023. Task force members believe meaningfully addressing this crisis will take more time.