SEATTLE — Washington lawmakers want to create a cold case unit within the state Attorney General’s Office specifically aimed at tackling cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women and people (MMIWP).
State Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, and state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Anacortes, have pre-filed bills in their respective chambers that would spearhead the initiative. The 2023 legislative session begins Monday.
“Those Native American voices of women who've been lost, they are now heard," Lekanoff said. "Those who have gone missing, they're now heard. Those who've gotten murdered are now heard. And this really for me shows how the values of Washington state rises in the legislative work that we do.”
If approved, the proposed bill would create an investigations unit within the Attorney General’s Office that would help local and tribal law enforcement solve MMIWP cold cases. It would include investigators and case navigators who would serve as family liaisons using culturally appropriate and trauma-informed practices.
In 2023, lawmakers will seek $2.2 million to hire five full and part-time staff, including an assistant attorney general, investigator, case navigator, management analyst and legal assistant.
Indigenous women are murdered at rates 10 times the national average in some jurisdictions, according to a recent federal survey cited by the Attorney General’s Office. The office also found that while Indigenous people make up less than 2% of the state’s population, they make up 5% of unresolved homicide cases, indicating a racial disparity.
The Pacific Northwest is facing an especially big problem. Washington state has one of the most MMIWP cases compared to other states, and Seattle has the most MMIWP cases out of 71 cities surveyed, according to a 2018 report from the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle.
The Attorney General's Office has identified 113 unsolved cases where the victim is Indigenous.
“The numbers really stand strong to tell you how one community of people who look like me, the people who sound like me, the people who have my color, my skin color, my hair, who have the bloodlines, as I do, we are at risk," Lekanoff said.
The unit was one of 10 recommendations that came out of a series of MMIWP task force meetings beginning in December 2021. The task force issued its first report in August, and in addition to the unit, it recommended standardizing the use of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, expanding law enforcement coordination and promoting inclusivity, among other recommendations.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the unit was “the right thing to do” and “long overdue.”
The cold case unit would be the latest in state initiatives to address the number of missing and murdered Indigenous people in Washington. In 2022, Washington became the first state in the U.S. to create a specialized alert system for missing Indigenous people. Between its launch July 1 and Dec. 7, the state launched 22 Missing Indigenous Person Alerts. Sixteen people were found alive, one was found dead and five people were still missing.