Post-Savanna’s Act pilot program launched to improve law enforcement response to missing and murdered Indigenous people

Note: Information for this report came from the offices of U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana

A push to get more resources, information and investigation for murdered and missing Indigenous persons years in the making took a major step forward this week with the launching of a pilot program on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

At a council meeting of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation — CSKT — the CSKT Council and U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana Kurt Alme launched a pilot project to develop a tribal community response plan — TCRP — in accordance with the U.S. Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons — MMIP — Initiative, and Operation Lady Justice Task Force in furtherance of the goals of the recently enacted Savanna’s Act.

The goal of a TCRP is to improve responses to emergent American Indian and Alaska Native missing person cases by establishing a collaborative response from tribal governments, law enforcement and other partners through culturally appropriate guidelines.

The U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies developed draft guides to assist in developing TCRPs with input from tribal leaders, tribal law enforcement and their communities.

The council meeting was also attended by representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Indian Affairs, local law enforcement and community organizations.

The goal is to complete the TCRP by Dec. 11.

In accordance with Savanna’s Act, CSKT’s TCRP will be developed to improve the collaborative response to missing Indigenous person cases by tribal governments, law enforcement and other partners through regionally appropriate guidelines. CSKT’s TCRP pilot project is the first of its kind in the nation, and its results will serve as a guide to establish similar regional programs across the U.S.

”Our community worked hard to elevate this issue so it is encouraging to see the effort continue to develop and grow,” Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Chairwoman Shelly R. Fyant said. “We know how important partnerships are and we will continue to collaborate with stakeholders in our community to implement this plan. We remain committed to working hard and applying resources to ensure our people receive justice.”

Working group meetings with representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the CSKT, law enforcement including the Flathead Tribal Police Department, Lake County Sheriff’s Office, Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, Sanders County Sheriff’s Office, Polson Police Department, and Ronan Police Department, and community organizations will begin next week to develop the TCRP. The TCRP will include guidelines for law enforcement agencies, victim services, community involvement, and media and public communication.

CSKT’s Tribal Council passed a resolution establishing a work group to address the issue of missing and murdered indigenous people. CSKT developed their own Missing Persons Protocol with Tribal Law and Order and authorized the development of a social media and tip line. CSKT also hosted a training on human trafficking and its correlation to MMIP and held numerous community meetings on safety awareness. An Arlee Youth Group was formed and has hosted Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women presentations on student safety awareness. The Council also voted unanimously to increase the reward money to $11,000 for any information that leads to solving the case of missing CSKT tribal member Jermain Charlo, who went missing in 2018. The Council helps support a Jermain Charlo billboard near Missoula.

For the past two years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Montana has worked with tribal government partners, the Montana Department of Justice, the Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force, FBI and BIA to bring awareness to and address the issue. It hired the country’s first MMIP Coordinator, who has helped coordinate responses to missing person cases; held two statewide trainings for law enforcement on how to use missing person databases and alerts such as Amber Alerts and for the public on what to do when a loved one goes missing; brought trainers from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System to all seven Montana reservations to train community members on how to use that system when a loved one goes missing; participated in the efforts of the Montana MIP Task Force, which have included ensuring that all missing American Indian and Alaskan Native people have been entered into the Montana Missing Persons Clearinghouse to ensure they are being looked for; and developed a public service announcement to inform the public about what to do when a loved one goes missing.

Sponsors of the bill praised the pilot project.

“Savanna’s Act gives us the tools to help address the MMIP crisis, and now those tools are being put to use,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a sponsor of the bill. “The implementation of this program is a step forward for Montana tribes, MMIP advocates, and the survivors of violence that worked tirelessly to see Savanna’s Act over the finish line. I’ll keep pushing to ensure Indian Country has the resources necessary to continue to combat this crisis head-on and ensure our Native communities are safe.”

“The missing and murdered Indigenous persons crisis continues to take a devastating toll on our tribal communities in Montana,” said U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who also sponsored the bill. “The work U.S. Attorney Alme and the CSKT … are doing to complete a tribal community response plan is a testament to their dedication on ending this crisis. I’m thankful for their hard work and will continue fighting to support and protect our tribal communities and families.”

Alme said his office and CKST have been working on developing the project since the MMIP Initiative was announced by U.S. Attorney General William Barr on the Flathead Indian Reservation Nov. 22, 2019.

“In spite of significant challenges brought on by COVID-19, we are pleased to be back almost a year later ready to complete this important step in addressing MMIP cases,” he said. “I want to thank all of the partners who have agreed to be a part of this process. After these pilot projects are completed and the guides are finalized, Savanna’s Act directs our office to continue working with partners such as our other tribal governments to ensure guidelines are developed across the Montana.”

Indigenous women and girls in Montana face murder rates that are 10 times higher than the national average, and according to the National Institute of Justice, more than 80 percent of Native American women have experienced violence, and half have experienced it within the last year.

Savanna’s Act, signed into law earlier this year, is named in honor of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who was murdered in North Dakota in August of 2017.

Savanna’s Act works to improve information sharing between tribal and federal law enforcement agencies and increase data collection on cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous people. It requires:

• Law enforcement training on how to record victim tribal enrollment information in federal databases;

• The creation of standardized, regionally-appropriate guidelines for inter-jurisdictional cooperation on cases; and

• The attorney general to include data on missing and murdered Indigenous people in an annual report to Congress.