A bill to establish guidelines for how Washington law enforcement agencies handle reports of missing Native people on and off reservations awaits the governor’s signature.
House Bill 1713, which passed the state Senate on Friday, also establishes two liaison positions within the Washington State Patrol — one dedicated to the eastern part of the state, another for the west side — to work with family members when missing persons reports are filed.
“When someone becomes missing, all too often there hasn’t been a process to get help for families,” said Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, the bill’s main sponsor. “Tribal members have reached out to tribal police, city and county officials, and the State Patrol, but no one could tell them what could be done.
“The tribal liaisons will be there to help, and with a protocol in place, investigations can follow through to the completion of the case.”
They will help increase trust between governmental organizations and Native communities and break the silence involved when an indigenous person goes missing, Mosbrucker said.
Her bill also creates a task force to bring together tribal representatives and law enforcement to address how such cases are handled. In addition, the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs will provide the State Patrol with government-to-government training.
Though it’s possible that Gov. Jay Inslee will sign the bill as early as Friday, it’s likely it will happen next week.
Once it becomes law, officials will begin interviewing for the liaison positions and start creating the best practices protocol that the state will provide to all law enforcement to ensure “we’re all doing the same thing,” Mosbrucker said, in handling reports of missing Native people on and off reservations.
Mosbrucker’s bill builds upon legislation she sponsored in 2018 that brought the State Patrol together with federally recognized tribes, tribal law enforcement, urban Indian organizations and the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs to study the issue of missing Native women in Washington.
It established a task force to gather data and recommend strategies to address the disappearances.
State Patrol Capt. Monica Alexander and Craig Bill, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs, led meetings in Yakima, Toppenish and throughout the state.
More than 300 people attended the October meeting at the Yakima Convention Center, with many testifying about missing and murdered loved ones within and beyond the Yakama Reservation and a lack of resolution in those cases, of living for years without answers. Some talked about violence they had suffered.
“This bill is about making sure we fix that rather than wait a whole other year for action steps,” Mosbrucker has said.
It’s unknown how many Native girls and women have gone missing on or near the 1.3-million-acre reservation. In 2009, the FBI concluded a two-year probe into the deaths of 16 women on the reservation from 1980 to 1993. An FBI spokesman said there may be as many as 32 unsolved cases on the reservation involving disappearances and deaths.
Mosbrucker has said there was enough information gathered for her to proceed with legislation to tackle ways to address the problem before June, when Alexander will present her final report. Alexander is still gathering information to give authorities her recommendations and the best estimate of how many Native women have gone missing in Washington.
“We’ll be the first state in the nation to have a number of missing. I’m sure that (number) will be underreported,” she said. But a number is a start.
“I think that once we have a number, we can leverage dollars if we need extra help on extra investigators, any resources we need. This is a very large number, I’m afraid. We can leverage numbers in the next session for more money.”
In the meantime, Mosbrucker continues to work with legislators in other states and others on a national level. She has helped Oregon Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, with her Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women bill.
A hearing for that bill is set for 8 a.m. April 30 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sanchez posted on Facebook encouraging in-person and written testimony in support.
“We need to turn out and show Oregon legislators how important this issue is, and that we need HB 2625 to pass so that we can begin increasing criminal justice resources for MMIW,” Sanchez wrote.
Along with numbers and increased resources, Mosbrucker hopes her efforts will help provide information on why Native women are going missing and help police solve cases. And more resources could help solve cold cases of Native women who were murdered.
People been asking for help on the issue of missing and murdered Native people for decades, Mosbrucker said. Her work began in 2018 after she was contacted by Earth-Feather Sovereign, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Sovereign had been seeking help for years on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous people.
Their family and friends have been let down over and over by officials and organizations who have promised help but didn’t deliver. That won’t happen this time, Mosbrucker said.
“I will not let this go, ” she said.