Remarks as Delivered
Good afternoon. I am pleased to be able to speak with you on this, the last day of the Symposium on Missing or Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. The Department of Justice is committed in our efforts to address high rates of violent crime in native communities and to improving the federal response to reports of missing or murdered American Indians or Alaska Natives. We received over 1,000 applications from a diverse pool of backgrounds and professions to attend this training and this impressive level of interest demonstrates that our commitment is shared by federal, state, and tribal criminal justice and social service professionals.
I want to congratulate also Leslie Hagan and the Department’s National Indian Country Training Initiative, as well as our partners at the Departments of Interior and Health and Human Services for creating this program and to provide, this program that actually provides you with the training and support needed to address common challenges in Indian country investigation of missing persons cases and prosecution of cases of murdered indigenous persons. We are working with state, local and tribal governments to find solutions and answers to the issues of missing or murdered indigenous persons, and I’d like to highlight four specific initiatives designed to make a difference in tribal communities.
The first is information sharing. It’s critical, of course, in all criminal justice investigations and in all law enforcement, but it’s particularly important when we’re taking about investigations that impact the most vulnerable amongst us. Being able to share information and to access federal criminal databases is vitally important to solving criminal cases and getting answers to families. Historically, some tribes have run into a variety of roadblocks in their effort to share records through the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, commonly known as NCIC. Because of this, the Justice Department launched the Tribal Access Program for National Crime Information, or TAP, in August of 2015 and it’s expanded the program yearly to provide Tribes access to national crime information systems for federally authorized criminal and non-criminal purposes. TAP allows participating federally recognized Tribes to serve and protect their nations’ citizens by ensuring the exchange of critical data across Criminal Justice Information Services, or CJIS, systems and other national crime information systems.
TAP also helps Tribes protect their communities in a host of ways:
- By entering orders of protection, making them accessible for enforcement both on and off tribal land
- By registering sex offenders in compliance with the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act
- By entering information to prevent illegal gun purchases
- By entering arrest warrants for on and off reservation awareness and enforcement
- By document arrest and conviction data, and
- By accessing investigative records of other law enforcement agencies
Earlier, the Department announced the selection of an additional 12 federally recognized tribes to participate in the expansion of TAP. There are now 108 tribes with over 350 tribal government agencies participating in TAP.
Another initiative is the FBI Indian Country Missing Persons Webpage. The FBI has investigative responsibilities, of course, for federal crimes committed on nearly 200 Indian reservations nationwide, and it shares federal jurisdiction with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. On May 5th, earlier this year, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day, the FBI unveiled a webpage dedicated to the cases of those gone missing in Indian Country. Through this webpage, the FBI is seeking public assistance and information on featured cases on the webpage. And, to further assist with the sharing of information, some of those cases have corresponding posters that have been translated into Navajo.
Another initiative is the Criminal Jurisdiction in Indian Country Training Initiative. Here again, it’s critical to be able to train law enforcement to basically add additional, if you will, boots on the ground to address the challenges we face.
One challenge in investigating cases in tribal communities is the limited number of law enforcement personnel and the frequent turnover in tribal police department staffing. Providing tribal and local law enforcement officers with a Bureau of Indian Affairs issued Special Law Enforcement Commission, or SLEC…That’s just one way to get additional, as I said, “boots on the ground.” A SLEC allows officers to enforce federal criminal statutes in Indian Country, so the commission program is an important force multiplier for increasing our capacity to respond to cases of missing or murdered indigenous persons. And one of the criteria for obtaining a SLEC commission is successful completion of the Criminal Jurisdiction in Indian Country class from the Department of Justice…where participants learn about a wide variety of topics including search and seizure issues, federal Indian law, federal criminal procedure, the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, and how to investigate sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse crimes occurring in tribal communities.
Pre-pandemic, the CJIC class was offered at various locations around the country with approximately 450 to 550 tribal, state, and local law enforcement personnel annually completing the class. Now, we began offering virtual sessions of these trainings as a result of the pandemic, and we’ve been able to greatly expand our reach, resulting in nearly 5,000 tribal and local law enforcement officers taking the training since August 2020.
Another initiative is the Violence Against Women Act. Domestic violence and sexual assault are some of the largest root causes of missing or murdered indigenous women. These issues are particularly important to me because, at the beginning of my career, actually before I was even a lawyer, I worked for then-Senator Biden on the Senate Judiciary Committee when he was laying the groundwork for the original passage of the original Violence Against Women Act of 1994.
The 1994 Violence Against Women Act set aside funds for tribes, recognizing the role of tribal self-government and culturally responsive services in effectively addressing violence against native women. Since then, each reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act has strengthened its tribal provisions, and we in the Department of Justice are calling on Congress to act soon to pass a Violence Against Women Act of 2021 that provides additional tools and resources for tribes that they need to protect survivors in their communities. Today, the Violence Against Women Act is as critical as it has ever been.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit overburdened communities especially hard and placed survivors of domestic and sexual violence in greater danger. Some survivors had to shelter in place with abusers while others were faced with homelessness as their economic losses mounted; rape crisis centers struggled to maintain contact with clients through Zoom; and domestic violence shelters struggled to adapt public health protocols to their crowded conditions. Violence Against Women Act-funded programs administered by the Department’s Office on Violence Against Women were a lifeline to these victims.
The Department will continue to support Tribes in their efforts to protect women in their communities from domestic and sexual violence, and we support expanding special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction to allow participating tribes to hold accountable non-Indian perpetrators of sexual violence, sex trafficking, domestic violence against child victims, stalking, elder abuse, and assault against law enforcement officers when they commit such crimes on tribal territory.
To the many tribal leaders and advocates who have worked tirelessly for years to ensure that tribal jurisdictional issues and the safety of Indian people remain a significant focus in the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization process, rest assured that the Department of Justice is a committed partner in this important work.
So, I just want to close by acknowledging that we in the Department of Justice understand and know that for the families and friends of the missing or murdered, life is divided into two halves – before and after the disappearance or murder of your loved one. As the Attorney General said on this year’s Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day, “Generations of American Indians and Alaska Natives have experienced violence or mourned a murdered or missing family member or loved one. The lasting effects of such trauma and suffering ripple across their communities.”
My colleagues at the Department of Justice and I look forward to working with you to address the high number of missing or murdered indigenous people. We thank you for the important work that you do in your communities and for your attendance at this symposium. Working together we can find answers and lasting solutions to the public safety challenges faced by tribal communities. Thanks very much for having me.