Many Cities Fail to Track Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

by | November 16, 2018

By Evan Bush

A new report points to a troubling lack of quality data about missing and murdered indigenous women, underscoring long-running concerns about institutional racism and poor relationships between police and Native communities that have created gaps in understanding the scope of violence against Native-American women.

The report, published by the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI), identifies 506 cases of missing or murdered indigenous women and girls since 1943. The numbers reflect information from records requests and research of 71 U.S. cities, and it is likely an undercount, the researchers say.

The report was released as political attention and media interest grow over the issue. The Canadian government launched an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in 2016. The Washington State legislature passed a bill in June that requires the Washington State Patrol to compile data and analysis of missing Native American women in the state by June 2019. In a 2010 survey, 94 percent of women who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native living in Seattle reported they had been raped or were coerced into sex at least once in their lives.

The just-released report identified 45 cases in Seattle, the most of any city studied.

Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, and Annita Lucchesi, a doctoral student, spent about a year requesting documents and information from police across the country. Flanked by five U.S. senators, the two held a news conference about their report Wednesday morning and called for more research.

"It shows we need to be collecting more and better data," Echo-Hawk told The Seattle Times late last month before the report was published. "Because information was collected in an incorrect and nonstandard way, we can't get a full indication of what's happening."

Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and Rep. Derek Kilmer, all Democrats from Washington state, attended the news conference.

"This report is the evidence that we need ... the problem is more than real -- it's horrifying. And we need action," Cantwell said in a news release. "We can no longer sweep these statistics under the rug."

Echo-Hawk said that the data they have compiled is likely an undercount of cases and that the records are likely incomplete. The researchers requested data from cities that have urban American Indian health centers, a significant population of urban American Indians or Alaska Natives, or were previously identified in previous surveys as having a large number of cases. They requested data for cases beginning in 1900 to present day, although most agencies only provided recent records.

Of the local police agencies, 40 provided some data in response, though 10 only confirmed cases provided by the researchers or gave partial data, according to the report. Fourteen agencies did not provide data. Eighteen records requests are still pending.

The researchers documented numerous challenges with public-disclosure requests in their report. Many records were not provided in a timely manner, the report says. Agencies sometimes provided confusing or incomplete records. Some agencies charged fees that the institute did not have the budget to pay. Sometimes records seemed to include people who were not Native.

"Racial misclassification is a huge problem," Lucchesi said. "Multiple agencies gave us both American Indian and   Indian American names," referring to Southeast Asia.

The researchers counted 45 missing and murdered women in Seattle, according to the report. Most of the cases were identified through an October 2017 public-disclosure request to the Seattle Police Department (SPD). The researchers identified additional cases by using social media, through discussion with members of American Indian communities or searching missing-persons databases.

The researchers did not provide The Seattle Times with the underlying data from the report out of concern for family members who had shared sensitive information about missing or murdered loved ones, Echo-Hawk said. She said she feared further marginalization by police if their names were made public, and she would need families' consent.

"The data is sacred," Lucchesi said. "It isn't something for voyeuristic folks to trawl through."

In reviewing the record requests and correspondence between the SPD and the researchers, gaps in data and communication were clear.

In response to Lucchesi's record request, SPD provided the researchers two spreadsheets of names of women and girls, with case numbers, dates, times and addresses. The Seattle Times obtained the spreadsheets through a separate public-disclosure request.

The first list the SPD sent to the researchers contained 26 names. The other contained 33 names, most of which had appeared on the first list. The records dated back to the 1960s.

In correspondence between the SPD public-disclosure staff and Lucchesi, the department acknowledged possible issues of racial misclassification in older records and wrote that the homicide unit found the letter "N" had been used to describe victim race as both Native American and "Negro" in records into the early '80s.

"It doesn't make sense to me, either. That's kind of the point," Lucchesi said of the two spreadsheets and follow-up communications with the police department. "This should be really basic. This should be really easy for law enforcement to pull. For some reason it's a confusing mess even when you ask for clarification."

SPD spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said a homicide detective searched case files by hand to find the records. Only homicide records were included, he said.

"We believe the accurate number of homicides, according to our records we were able to retrieve, is 33," Whitcomb said. "The ones provided, I'm confident, are accurate. It is possible some were missed."

Whitcomb said police have upgraded from paper to digital records and improved how information is coded. Data on homicides and uses of force are published online, he noted. "The system of classification was a product of its era," he said. "The system we use now is the modern and national standard and ... some would say still flawed."

He acknowledged that "in previous decades, institutional racism influenced government systems, including police," said vulnerable populations and people of color were given "less service than they deserved" and said the new report was a "call to action" for government and police to do better.

"I'm certain there are families still wondering what happened to their loved ones," Whitcomb said. "In 2018, the best we can do is issue a heartfelt apology and a commitment that the case that was investigated in 1973 is much different than the case investigated in 2013."

The researchers identified about 11 recent cases that were not in the records provided by the SPD. It's not clear why the cases were missing. Although the researchers did not share their data, they did mention several women by name in the report who did not appear in the SPD data.

The report included information about Eveona Cortez, who was killed earlier this year in Burien, according to The Seattle Times archives. The King County Sheriff's Office investigated that case. The report also mentioned Nicole Westbrook, a member of the Navajo Nation who was shot and killed in Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood in 2012, according to the archives.

"I'm familiar with that case ... heartbreaking case," Whitcomb said of Westbrook. "It was near First and Yesler and coming home from a date with her boyfriend and shot and killed on the steps of her apartment."

Still on the phone, he pulled up the case in the SPD computer system.

"She's listed here as white," he said. "There's a contemporary example of misclassification."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of the doctoral researcher and co-author of the report on missing and murdered indigenous women. Her name is Annita Lucchesi.

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