New Federal Program Aims to Strengthen MMIP Investigations

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The U.S. Department of Justice recently announced plans to address the country's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples crisis with new, nationwide initiatives aimed to increase cooperative investigations. 

According to the department's press release, the Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Regional Outreach Program allows departments from various levels of government, including federal, state and tribal, to collaborate and share resources used to address Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples cases across the country.

The regional outreach program dedicated five assistant U.S. attorneys alongside five MMIP coordinators to help ensure issues within the crisis will be communicated directly with the U.S. Attorneys offices. The announcement comes on the heels of the U.S. Marshals Service launching a pilot program in February with the Yurok Tribe to develop tribally-led collaborative partnerships to address the MMIP crisis.

Since declaring a local emergency on the crisis in December of 2021, the Yurok Tribe has been at the forefront of regional, statewide and national efforts to bring attention to the crisis and resources to address it. Last year, the tribe hosted its first annual Northern California tribal summit on the issue and was successful in getting a Feather Alert bill passed into law, setting up a statewide notification system for MMIP cases.

Vanessa Waldref, the United States attorney for the district of Eastern Washington, said this new DOJ program is designed to offer tailored services to each specific region.

"Our efforts are gonna be to both work with our state partners to ensure that we are focusing our efforts on the individuals that are critically important to be found, as well as if there's a homicide, making sure that we're doing all we can to investigate and prosecute cases that are appropriate to do so," Waldref said.

According to the DOJ press release, the program will also allow for investigations on MMIP cold cases.

Monty Wilkinson, the director of the executive office of the United States Attorneys, said in the press release that the office is committed to the effective prevention of and response to MMIP cases through collaborative efforts.

"We will work together with all relevant federal, tribal, state and local law enforcement partners to locate missing persons and solve crimes where they have occurred," Wilkinson said in the release. "This new program will allow the department to build upon the work done by individual United States Attorneys' offices and ensure continued support to those offices by coordinating outreach regionally on MMIP matters."

The new outreach program's workforce will be housed across the district offices of Alaska, Arizona, Eastern Washington, Minnesota, New Mexico, Northern Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota and Western Michigan.

Waldref shared her appreciation of the partnership with the DOJ program, emphasizing the department's initiatives on bringing solutions to the forefront of the missing persons problem.

"We really wanna be a leader in addressing the MMIP crisis, and I'm really encouraged by the energy by the Department of Justice to have this issue be a priority and to have to commit the resources to address the needs of our tribal communities," Waldref said.

Although some data collecting and information won't readily be available to the general public, Waldref said it is important to highlight cases the U.S. Attorneys' Offices are working on and move them forward.

"The goal of this program is to really provide that additional connection to the public and show the Department of Justice's commitment to this issue," Waldref said.

Gregg Peterman is the first assistant U.S. attorney for South Dakota and has worked with the state's Indian Country for the past 29 years. He will work with Troy Morley who is the recently appointed tribal liaison for the great plains region, which encompasses South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Wyoming and Nebraska.

"Troy and his colleagues around the country who were also selected for the position will bring to the job a certain level of expertise, skill, years on the job, and extensive background prosecuting violent crime in Indian country on reservations," Peterman said. "We work very well with our colleagues in the surrounding states, and so we have nothing but high hopes for the success of this program."

The Montana Department of Justice stated in an email that Montana is not a part of the DOJ's new project and none of the new positions will be based in the state. Furthermore, the email stated that the Montana DOJ disagrees with bringing more legal personnel onto the MMIP crisis.

"More lawyers are not the solution to the problem of missing and murdered indigenous persons in Montana," wrote Emilee Cantrell, the deputy communications director for the state's DOJ. "Ultimately, the federal government needs to fulfill its commitment to provide for public safety in Indian Country that is under federal jurisdiction."

In New Mexico, the program was announced during the state's Not Invisible Act Commission's public hearing by the U.S. Attorney Alexander M.M. Uballez and the DOJ. New Mexico is one of the districts that will receive one of the assistant U.S. attorneys that will also support the surrounding states including Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah.

"This is really a culmination in fulfilling the promise that was made as part of the report on the executive order promoting public safety in the country to devote resources to address the issue of MMIP," said Marlys Big Eagle, the National Native American Outreach Services liaison for the Department of Justice in an interview with ICT.

"So, this is the ability for the department to have regional coordinators in regional U.S. cities that can work with tribal, federal, state, local law enforcement organizations and non-governmental organizations to try to aid in the prevention and response to MMIP issues," Big Eagle said.

The regional outreach program was established to assist with other initiatives set forth by the Department of Justice to further promote safety within Indian Country, such as the Executive Order 14053 and the Justice Department's National Native American Outreach Services liaison.

"The MMIP Program will liaise with and enhance the work of the department's tribal liaisons and Indian Country assistant United States attorneys throughout Indian Country, the Native American issues coordinator and the national Indian Country training initiative coordinator to ensure a comprehensive response to MMIP," the department's press release states.

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