Haaland Announces Indian Affairs Bureau Missing and Murdered Unit

April 21, 2021 by Reece Nations
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland listens to tribal leaders and jots down notes during a round-table discussion at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, N.M. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)

WASHINGTON — Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced a new division of the Missing and Murdered Unit will operate within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services.

The new unit will direct federal resources in unsolved investigations into cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people. Haaland, the nation’s first Indigenous cabinet secretary, said Tuesday during a House Budget Committee hearing, the unit will improve the Indian Affairs Bureau’s coordination with other departments.

Haaland’s announcement is a continuation of a task force initiative conceived during the Trump administration known as “Operation Lady Justice.” Haaland said in her testimony before the committee the unit will have its budget increased from $1 million to $6 million. 

“Violence against Indigenous peoples is a crisis that has been underfunded for decades. Far too often, murders and missing persons cases in Indian country go unsolved and unaddressed, leaving families and communities devastated,” Haaland said in a written statement. “The new MMU unit will provide the resources and leadership to prioritize these cases and coordinate resources to hold people accountable, keep our communities safe, and provide closure for families.”

Although around 1,500 cases of missing American Indian and Alaska Native people have been reported to the National Crime Information Center, the majority of cases are believed to go undocumented, according to analysis by the Urban Indian Health Institute. In addition to reviewing the unsolved cases, the unit will coordinate efforts with investigators from the FBI, Indian Affairs Bureau and Tribal governments for active investigations. 

American Indian women are murdered at a rate that is roughly 10 times the national average in some counties, according to Department of Justice analysis. Further, 84.3% of American Indian and Alaska Native women have been victims of violence in their lifetime, and 56.1% have been victims of sexual assault in their lifetime, according to the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center. 

The multi-agency unit intends to address the crisis by gathering intelligence on active cases, reviewing and prioritizing cases for investigative teams’ assignments, developing plans to direct investigators, and identifying and coordinating outside resources that are beneficial to investigative efforts. In addition, the unit will also coordinate with other stakeholders, prepare investigative reports, analyze current missing-person protocols, and develop missing-person response guidelines. 

“Whether it’s a missing family member or a homicide investigation, these efforts will be all hands-on deck,” Haaland continued in her statement. “We are fully committed to assisting Tribal communities with these investigations, and the MMU will leverage every resource available to be a force-multiplier in preventing these cases from becoming cold case investigations.” 

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