State to have office to investigate cases of murdered, missing Indigenous people

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Colorado will form an office to bolster the state’s ability to investigate missing and murdered Indigenous people after an intensely negotiated bill passed in the final days of the state’s 2022 legislative session.

Disagreements about how the Office of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives should be formed and in which existing state agency it should be housed stoked tensions between Gov. Jared Polis, the lawmakers sponsoring the bill and interest groups. The legislation’s fate even appeared to be in doubt at one point.

But after the bill was amended based on some of the governor’s recommendations, Polis told The Colorado Sun he will sign Senate Bill 150 into law.

“We just wanted to make it work, like we do anything,” Polis said. “Like any bill, it could have been better. But … this helps us investigate these cases, so I’ll be signing.”

The new Office of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives will be housed in the Colorado Department of Public Safety. It will serve as a liaison between the department and the Indigenous community, with the aid of a board composed of tribal representatives, law enforcement and social services workers.

The creation of the office, and the cost to build the Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s capacity to work on cases of missing or murdered Indigenous people, is about $500,000.

The measure will also require any law enforcement agency that receives a report of a missing Indigenous person notify the Colorado Bureau of Investigation within eight hours of receiving a report of a missing adult or two hours of receiving a report of a missing child.

Denver ranks 7th in the nation, among U.S. cities, with the highest number of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls that are not included in law enforcement records, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.

The Colorado Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives Task Force, an informal group of native women who helped create Senate Bill 150, found more than 50 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people in Colorado.

Fifteen other states have taken legislative action to address the problem, according to a fact sheet written by the task force. In late February, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed similar legislation aimed at improving coordination between law enforcement agencies investigating cases of missing and murdered native women. The bill creates a new

position in the state attorney general’s office to focus on those cases and increases data collection and education while also providing grant funding to improve reporting of missing persons cases.

“There’s a lot of work to do and this bill will hopefully go a long way into rectifying that and hopefully even bring some of our relatives home,” said Gina Lopez, a Native American woman, who is a

member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, and a part of the task force that pushed for the Colorado bill.

The bill is important because, for too long, Indigenous people have gone lost, missing or murdered without any investigation or acknowledgement, said State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill.

Comprehensive data about missing and murdered Indigenous people is sparse and it is collected in different ways by different agencies.

Getting better data is part of the reason the new office is so important, Lopez said. The bill requires new data-collection and requires that law enforcement officers receive training about missing and murdered Indigenous people.

“We need to establish an office that is going to be be responsible for capturing this information because the truth of the matter is we don’t know the scope of what the impact is of missing and murdered here in Colorado,” she said.

But the measure’s passage was far from guaranteed.

In a letter to the bill’s sponsors in mid-April, Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera and Stan Hilkey, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, said the Polis administration had concerns about creating the new office within the Department of Public Safety. The bill creates a broad scope of work with expectations that are beyond the current mission of the Department of Public Safety, the letter said. The document encouraged the bill’s sponsors to work with Primavera’s office to identify ways to instead engage the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs on the issue, which is “better suited,” the letter says.

“We are unable to support SB22-150 as currently written,” the letter said. “However, our objectives are aligned, we are committed to seeking justice for MMIR (missing and murdered Indigenous relatives), and we are eager to work with you and your stakeholders to accomplish these goals.”

Herod said that an amendment to the bill adopted on the second to last day of the 2022 legislative session eased the Polis administration’s concerns. Most of the measure remained substantially intact, though the Department of Public Safety will now be able to determine how much staffing it needs for the office instead of being directed to hiring a certain number of employees.

“It’s very, very similar to what we first wrote,” said Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Wheat Ridge Democrat and another prime sponsor of the bill, “which I think shows that the community stuck to their ground and moved the governor.”

State Rep. Monica Duran, D-Wheat Ridge, also was a prime sponsor of the measure.

The hope is that the final product, which passed with limited opposition, will aid people like Willa Whiteskunk, whose son went missing in July of 2000, when he was 21.

Whiteskunk, whose brother was also murdered, said the last time she saw her son Odell J. Vest, was in their home in Towaoc, the capital of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in southwest Colorado.

“I just wait, I wait, I wait, I wait,” Whiteskunk said earlier this month. “I live my life day by day.”

She has heard from investigators only a couple of times since Vest disappeared. They say the same things when they contact her, she said. “We’re still looking, we’re still searching.”

This story is from The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned news outlet based in Denver and covering the state. For more, and to support The Colorado Sun, visit coloradosun.com. The Colorado Sun is a partner in the Colorado News Conservancy, owner of Colorado Community Media.

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