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Report recommends big changes to help Utah's murdered, missing Indigenous people

Posted at 5:42 PM, Aug 30, 2023

OGDEN, Utah — A report recommends some significant policy changes to help investigate and solve cases involving murdered and missing Indigenous people in Utah.

The draft report, prepared for the Utah State Legislature's Murdered, Missing Indigenous Relatives Task Force (formerly known as the Murdered, Missing Indigenous Women & Girls Task Force), was shared with FOX 13 News. It follows years of meetings and hours of often heart-wrenching testimony from loved ones of those who have vanished or been killed with no resolution.

"We're not doing what we need to do as a state," said House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who co-chairs the task force.

Indigenous people make up about two percent of Utah's population. But statistics from the Utah Department of Health & Human Services find they are more than five percent of homicides. The Urban Indian Health Institute ranked Utah in the top ten worst states for murdered and missing Indigenous women and children.

"Right now? Salt Lake City and the state of Utah is not a safe place for Native American people," said Yolanda Francisco, the executive director of the advocacy group Restoring Ancestral Winds, who also sits on the task force.

The report highlighted communication and coordination problems, jurisdictional and cultural issues and even a lack of trust in law enforcement.

"So what we have happening is you have state law enforcement, it may be city, county law enforcement and then you have tribal law enforcement. All those entities need to strengthen communication among each other," Francisco said. "It’s often been said that sovereignty is an issue. But what you need to understand and realize is that Native American people are people, too. And they are residents of this state and contribute to the vitality of our state."

The report recommends police agencies enter into memorandums of understanding for better coordination among jurisdictions; improved communication with tribes; keeping the families of missing and murdered people appraised of what is happening; cultural sensitivity training; taking all open cases to a cold case review board run by the state; increasing funding to rural law enforcement agencies; and ensuring that missing person alerts are unbiased.

The report, presented to the task force on Wednesday at Weber State University in Ogden, also suggested that cell phone infrastructure in tribal areas be improved to help improve the effectiveness of AMBER Alerts for missing children. It even had recommendations for news media outlets on how to effectively report on murdered, missing Indigenous cases. The report's authors told the committee they did have difficulty contacting tribal leaders to get their input in their research.

Francisco told FOX 13 News that as an Indigenous woman, she viewed all of the recommendations in the draft report as a priority.

"It's a priority when we have folks who are missing and murdered. We are less than 2% of the population, but the way we are victimized is higher than that," she said.

Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, who co-chairs the task force and represents a large part of Utah with tribal lands in his district, said they are already working with police agencies to improve coordination.

"We’re working on that to basically... get a more reciprocal agreement," he said.

When it comes to the Utah State Legislature, the draft report recommended some policy changes including removing any waiting periods to file a missing persons report for adults; immediately inputting names in the National Crime Information Center database; and requiring police to immediately begin an investigation into a missing persons report unless they have information on where the person is or their well-being.

Rep. Romero said she, Sen. Hinkins and others in the legislature were intending to open bills for the upcoming session in response to the report.

"What I want to do is set that foundation and be able to try to identify ways in which to fill in those gaps. This is going to take a long commitment from the state," Rep. Romero said.

Sen. Hinkins also hoped the task force's work would bring awareness to the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous Utahns.

"We're hoping this is an awareness to the public so that if they see some nefarious activities it be reported," Sen. Hinkins said.

Read the draft report presentation to the task force here: