MMIP Taskforce holds virtual community listening session over Zoom Thursday
Last updated 7/17/2020 at 12:23pm
Members of the Montana Missing Indigenous Person Task Force ran a virtual public listening session hosted by the Harlem Public Library to hear community concerns and provide education on their organization and missing person cases in general.
The task force was created in 2019, with the purpose of determining the scope of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women issue, as well as missing indigenous people in general, by learning about jurisdictional barriers, ways to improve investigation and reporting especially in Indian Country.
The task force is made up of representative from the eight major tribal communities in Montana, a representative from State Highway Patrol, the U.S. Attorneys’ Office Montana District, Indian Health Service and works with national level organizations with similar goals.
Looping in Native Communities Coordinator for the Montana Department of Justice Tina Chamberlain supports the task force and oversees a grant program to help develop databases for Native American families living on reservation land to use in addition to reporting cases directly to law enforcement.
“We will be reporting to the Legislature the strategies the task force recommends to the state’s Tribal Relations Committee,” Chamberlain said, “… We’re hoping that the committee will put forth some new bills and that those bills will be passed in the next session.”
Chamberlain said the efforts of the task force, especially in trying to hold listening sessions like this, have been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is not an ideal way to have feedback and conversation with community members,” she said.
She said the event sought to answer a number of questions including, what are the barriers to reporting in the area? What resources do families need? And what can the task force do to support them?
During the meeting an assistant at the Harlem Public Library named Carly said while she doesn’t live on the local reservation, she hears a common concern from people who do.
“It seems like there is a disconnect with the law enforcement there, so I think that is something that can be improved,” she said.
Chamberlain said this sentiment is not universal, but also not uncommon, and part of the job of the task force it to find solutions to this disconnect.
“Particularly in Native communities, there’s just not enough law enforcement response,” she said.
Chamberlain said a lot of factors lead to this issue, many of which are difficult for law enforcement to deal with.
“We know that some agencies work really well together, and there are other agencies that just don’t have the resources to respond because their tribal land is so vast,” she said, “There’s resource challenges, there’s staffing challenges, there may not be someone that can really advocate for families.”
She said the task force is also working on a website that can connect with social media to get notifications out about missing people out faster.
Another person on the call who couldn’t be identified due to some audio issues asked if those on the task force had heard about people who didn’t want to go to law enforcement for fear of repercussions.
“We know that there are families that use social media instead of law enforcement,” Chamberlain said.
She said some people are afraid of going to law enforcement especially in cases of juveniles who go missing repeatedly.
She said people should still go to law enforcement as quickly as possible.
The longer it takes to report the longer and less effective the response will be, she said.
Montana Deputy Attorney General Melissa Schlichting said jurisdictional confusion can be a big factor in complicating law enforcement’s efforts especially with crimes that happen on the border of reservations.
“If you have a crime that crosses the jurisdiction, maybe someone went to Billings or something, and they go missing in Billings but they’re a resident of the reservation who has jurisdiction over that case?” she said, “It has caused issues.”
Jurisdictional confusion has been a complicating factor in this issue since long before the creation of the task force.
“It becomes very complicated very quickly just because the transitory nature of our society,” Schlichting said.
She said a perception exists in some places in Montana, though not everywhere, that federal state local and tribal law enforcement don’t have good working relationships, which can lead to issues with information sharing, but she’s hoping this task force will be able to address some of these issued.
“This is the start of a very big project that we’re hoping to have partnered with other state agencies and tribal governments and hopefully we’ll find some solutions,” she said.
Montana Department of Justice Missing Persons Specialist Brian Frost said recent improvement on the jurisdictional confusion side of things has happened since the state Legislature passed House Bill 54, which states that if law enforcement is told about a missing person they must take a report or confirm that someone else has.
“We don’t want people falling through the cracks,” Frost said.
Frost said part of his job is answering questions about how missing person cases work and he can personally check up on agencies that people think are not being responsive which he said can sometimes happen.
“I have heard a few times that law enforcement told people They’re out partying, they’re out drinking, they’ll be home tomorrow,’ that is not acceptable,” he said.
Frost said he can act as a liaison for families and law enforcement if difficulties arise in a missing person case.
He also oversees missing person databases for the Montana DOJ as well their missing persons website, which he encouraged people to visit.
Frost said he also issues public alerts like Amber Alerts, and took some time answering a few frequently asked questions he often sees about them.
He said there are requirements to be met before a missing person case can use the Amber Alert system.
They must be a child or have a significant mental or physical disability, they must have been abducted, and law enforcement must have reason to believe they are in imminent danger.
He said these requirements exist in order to avoid alert fatigue among the public which can lead to apathy which defeats the purpose of the alerts.
“If we did an alert for every one of those missing persons, you’d be looking at over five alerts per day,” he said.
He said other kinds of alerts that have less intense requirements are broadcast through other means.
He also took the opportunity to talk about a pervasive misconception about missing person cases that he frequently runs into even today.
“Anybody can report a person missing,” he said, “The biggest myth that we find all the time, people still think there’s a waiting period for reporting a loved one missing. That is absolutely not true, and it’s never been true.”
He said if people think a loved one is missing, they should call local law enforcement immediately.
Frost also said people should be prepared for seemingly odd and specific questions, even ones that may be embarrassing, like ones about habitual drug use. But he encouraged people to answer honestly for the sake of the person missing.
“It’s not there to make fun of the missing person, but could be really useful in aiding law enforcement to find them,” he said.
Frost said people shouldn’t even consider the notion that they might waste time or resources reporting someone who may not actually be missing.
“What happens if you call back 10 minutes later saying they’ve been found?” Frost said, “That’s OK. We just take them out of the system, that’s a happy ending. So, don’t feel like you’re wasting resources calling in a loved one, that’s OK, it happens.”