Justice Today

Tribal Crime, Justice, and Safety (Part Two)

July 11, 2022 National Institute of Justice Season 1 Episode 12
Justice Today
Tribal Crime, Justice, and Safety (Part Two)
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Stacy Lee Reynolds and Christine (Tina) Crossland continue their discussion of tribal crime, justice, and safety, including how Native American persons experience crime victimization at higher rates than non-Native people and the jurisdictional complexities in responding to tribal crime, justice, and safety. Read the transcript.
Listen to the first half of Stacy and Tina’s discussion.

This podcast episode was produced by and discusses the work of the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

Find more information on the research and programs referenced in this episode. 

SPEAKER 1: Welcome to Justice Today, the official podcast of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, where we shine a light on cutting edge research and practices and offer an in-depth look at what we’re doing to meet the biggest public safety challenges of our time. Join us as we explore how funding, science, and technology help us achieve strong communities.

STACY LEE REYNOLDS: Hi, everyone, it’s Stacy Lee Reynolds, a Communications Assistant for NIJ. This is the second half of my conversation with NIJ’s Social and Behavioral Scientist Tina Crossland about NIJ’s tribal justice research. Be sure to check out part one if you haven’t already. 

We ended the last episode talking about tribal jurisdictions, and I wanted to shift and ask you about the national baseline study. Can you talk a little about this project and what it is?

TINA CROSSLAND: So, the baseline study or what we call the NBS is actually the flagship of the Violence Against Indian Women Program, and the purpose behind that is we really need to get a national estimate, looking at the rates of victimization experienced by Native women. We’re interested in the gaps in both health and legal services that they receive and outcomes. And we also want to go back and look at the criminal jurisdiction that we’ve just been talking about and how that impacts what happens when these things happen to Native women. 

So the key goals of the baseline study is once again, we’ll provide a national victimization rate of violence committed against these native women who are actually living in tribal communities across the United States, so that we can understand the problem and actually understand specifically the service needs. And we also want to educate and inform policymakers and the public about the public health, wellness, and safety issues affecting these native women. NIJ developed a sampling plan that will occur in geographically-dispersed tribal communities across the United States. It will include states in the Lower 48 and Alaska, and the randomization process of the study sampling plan for each phase ensures all federally recognized land holding tribal nations and tribal households within those nations will have an equal chance of being selected. In addition to being in selected land-based tribes, all adult American Indian, Alaska Native women who reside in a tribal nation household will be recruited to participate in the study. 

As far as our primary participants, all adult women living in the households can participate in the study, so long as they’re 18 years of age or older. Self-identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, are affiliated with a tribe or an enrolled tribal citizen, and most importantly, agreed to voluntarily participate. And this is important because the survey is asking some really important questions to these folks. And it’s asking questions about their health, their well-being, their resiliency, their lifetime and previous 12 month experiences with different types of victimization. We’re asking also about the perpetrator to include race and ethnicity; where the incident took place, as far as whether it was on or off tribal lands; and was the incident reported to law enforcement, and if the event was not reported, why was it not reported? These questions were all added based on the previous studies we funded because we need to know the answers to these questions, specifically around criminal jurisdiction. The survey also asked participants about the impact of their victimization and service needs. And probably most importantly, we also asked them about how they’ve adapted to trauma and the threats and other significant stressors in their lives. So collectively, these answers to these particular questions we hope will inform our prevention and intervention efforts moving forward, and specifically help the department in our efforts to reduce violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women as well.

STACY LEE REYNOLDS: That sounds like an important study. Is the COVID-19 pandemic hindering outreach or research efforts?

TINA CROSSLAND: So the global pandemic has resulted in several challenges. In general, pretty much most social and behavioral science studies were put on hold, postponed, or delayed in 2020 due to the COVID-19, with many of the studies just now, right now, being cleared to proceed. In addition, the subsequent federal, state, and tribal government closures and travel bans that were enacted over these past 18 plus months, has also limited what activities we could actually be performed during this time. So, unfortunately, timing-wise, the team of researchers that are working on the baseline study had planned a robust schedule of site recruitment in various locations, beginning May of 2020. And, of course, as we all know, that’s the time when many of us were at home and not allowed to move around. So postponement of those activities actually went into effect then. However, the research team has been tracking COVID-related tribal closures during this entire time, and we’ve been doing that by checking in to find out when tribes have reopened; we’re asking to see if tribal points of contact, are they back, working full-time; we’re gauging their availability of tribal representatives to meet us; we’re checking websites and other types of things. 

You know, as I mentioned earlier, you know, we’re really committed to an ethical and engaged effort, and specifically, the federal Indian trust doctrine clarifies we, as the federal government, have to have responsibility to ensure the well-being of tribes and their citizens. And of course, as being in the middle of a global health pandemic, we need to make sure that our tribes and the citizens are safe. So recognizing, you know, specifically that COVID-19 has had a particularly devastating impact on tribal communities, and has been--we’ve been doing a lot of consulting with tribal leaders and stakeholders to get their input on--and advice on how best to move forward with a study. And as we all know, we’re--we continue to deal with ongoing pandemic with our different highs and lows, we have been able to recruit some sites, but it’s going much slower than we want. However, I want to assure all tribal leaders and stakeholders that NIJ is committed to completing the baseline study, we understand the importance, and the urgency, and the need for this information. And that we will get it done. But we want to do it when it’s--can be safe for everyone to proceed.

STACY LEE REYNOLDS: Yeah, that makes sense. What is the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Person Awareness Campaign?

TINA CROSSLAND: So missing and murdered indigenous women, sometimes that includes girls, sometimes at the addition of men, boys, and the Two-Spirit movement, is an effort to really increase awareness around the disappearance of and murder experienced by indigenous people. Now, these efforts have highlighted that the scope of the problem is very elusive because data on these issues are limited. Something as I’ve mentioned to you before, in general, there’s a lot of data that we don’t have around these types of topics. 

But before I talk about what NIJ is doing, I do think it’s important to say that the missing and murdered moniker is talking about two very different things. For example, missing person cases which are very dynamic and most cases are resolved quickly with a person found alive and healthy and within a very short period of time. Now on the other hand, we have death investigations that involve the cause and manner of unnatural and unexplained deaths that may or may not be determined to be a homicide. So it’s important to delineate between missing, murdered, and generally victimized indigenous people. So not all missing persons are the result of violence, nor all missing persons murdered. Similarly, indigenous people, specifically women, face high rates of intimate partner homicide, not necessarily resulting from a missing person event. Currently, there’s no empirical research directly or indirectly, that shows causation or association between these factors and the issue of going missing either voluntarily or involuntarily. 

So NIJ has funded a few studies on Missing Persons. For example, a research team from the University of Nebraska at Omaha has conducted a descriptive analysis, looking at missing and murdered native women and children in that state. And they’re looking at barriers to reporting, and investigating, and offering recommendations for improving access to justice. The project has been--has received a lot of attention. It’s been given a lot of praise. And there has been a lot of discussion about duplicating the work in other states. So we’re very excited about that. The other project that I want to talk about is actually a project that was funded by our partners from the Office on Violence Against Women. And it has to do with research staff, who titled--who were doing analyses looking at data provided by the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, also known as NamUs, and the project is titled Examination Circumstances and Characteristics. And this study aims to enhance our understanding of violent missing person and unidentified person cases. So the staff assess the extent of violence in both missing person and unidentified person cases and any differences that may be found between violent and nonviolent cases. And the study findings are expected to improve our understanding of these cases and give us much needed information where we’ve had none before. In addition, the data review is expected to help that particular program improve or enhance services to law enforcement, medical examiners and coroners involved in cases, as well, and probably most importantly, to better serve victims and their families and other loved ones.

STACY LEE REYNOLDS: Ok. Now, how has NamUs helped to address MMIP?

TINA CROSSLAND: So NamUs is one of these fabulous assets that the Department of Justice has. But I think it’s important for us to kind of go back to what is about missing person cases and what’s so challenging about them. And I can say that missing person cases are one of the many challenges law enforcement agencies across the country contend with. And they deal with that, for both native and non-native people. There’s a lot of challenges surrounding about a person’s right to go missing if they’re an adult; determining whether going missing as a result of criminal or non-criminal behavior; a lack of policies mandating the entry of missing person cases into national and state data systems; a lack of standardized definition of a missing person; and of course variation in the age of what constitutes adult status across both states and jurisdictions. I can also attest that the sheer volume of missing person cases poses one of the most significant challenge to law enforcement agencies tasked with, of course, locating these individuals, and law enforcement officers misuse multiple data systems that don’t talk to one another, resulting in cases being entered into several different systems. The problem is especially impactful for agencies that are often understaffed, underfunded, and very overtasked. 

So in addition to law enforcement officers using their agency’s case management system, current federal and state laws require reporting missing persons to the National Crime Information Center, which most people often refer to as NCIC. Still, law enforcement may also have to enter data into the state missing person clearinghouse or some other state, regional, or tribal data system. In some cases, law enforcement officers have to input the same case data into four different data systems, which just seems crazy. So law enforcement officers have indicated a necessity to spend more time working cases and less time inputting case data into multiple databases that can’t share information either because of statute limitations or due to data exchange conditions. So for instance, NCIC and NamUs cannot legally share data at this time. Therefore, the U.S. Congress would need to pass legislation explicitly requiring or allowing the data to be shared. If legislation effects were to be passed, additional resources would be required to develop this interoperability amongst the systems. And if those efforts were to be extended to state, local, county, and tribal systems, once again, additional resources would be needed. So, I say all of that to say is that one of the things that we’ve been doing to address that issue is the Department of Justice’s NamUs Program has been working to close the gaps related to missing indigenous people and ensure that every tribal law enforcement agency knows about and can use the system to help resolve cases. 

So, for those less familiar with the program, NamUs is an operational database that uniquely combines technology, and forensic services, as well as investigative support, and a central repository for missing unidentified and unclaimed person cases. Most importantly the system is free. I like to say that a couple of times, it’s free, it’s secure, and it’s a nationwide overlap. So what makes it unique is it’s a system available to law enforcement, medical examiners, coroners, and the general public. And best of all, the database allows tribes to collect better data on their missing person cases, and also provides a tool for sharing and pairing case information across jurisdictional boundaries. So, data fields specific to tribal cases that we’ve included are missing persons tribal enrollment or affiliation, whether a missing person was last seen on tribal land, and whether a missing person’s primary residence was on tribal land. 

NamUs has a proven track record of success and that vast capabilities and resources invaluable to state, tribal, and local governments. It’s also what we like to call as a force multiplier for law enforcement agencies and medical legal death investigators. Those are the people I was telling you really want to spend more time solving cases. So NamUs allows for greater cooperation and coordination between these government agencies and public health and safety organizations that can help build and sustain these relationships and community partnerships, while also proactively providing solutions for investigating and resolving missing person cases. And what I like to say is probably the most important component for me is that the program allows family members to become an active participant in the search for their loved ones, while also providing much needed services where a few formal support services have previously been provided. So it’s an essential tool for states, local tribal governments. But it’s also an important tool for the federal government and addressing responses to missing indigenous people. So specifically, the program has been helping us identify barriers to reporting and investigating missing person cases and finding viable and practical solutions to include assisting with developing new protocols and procedures to apply to these cases of missing person cases. 

So, Stacy, I just think it’s best to come back to what NIJ’s mission is. We’ve been frequently referred to as the research, development, and evaluation arm of the Department of Justice. However, many also refer to us as knowledge brokers who facilitate these exchange of information between justice systems, and everything that’s impacting it. So the particular program that we’re highlighting today, the tribal crime, justice, and safety research efforts are bridging the gap between different worlds, and building connections and solutions to very nuanced and complex problems. If anybody wants to learn anything more about this program, and the different projects that I’ve discussed, I really encourage them to go to NIJ’s website and you will definitely find more information about the different projects that we’ve talked about.

STACY LEE REYNOLDS: Tina, thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate your expertise on tribal crime, safety, and justice. And thank you to our listeners, please stay tuned for additional episodes.

 SPEAKER 2: To learn more about today’s topic, or about NIJ, visit the links in the episode description and join us for new episodes every month. 

Opinions or points of view expressed in this episode represent a consensus of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. Any products and manufacturers discussed in this episode are presented for informational purposes only and do not constitute product approval or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Justice.