Inconclusive and Incomplete

Initial report on missing Indigenous people short on findings due to police nonresponse, lack of data, COVID-19

A red handprint across the mouth is a symbol of the movement to bring more light to the MMIWR crisis, which a state-mandated task force was not able to quantify over the last year. (Katherine Lewin)

A year ago, the state-mandated Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force set out to tackle what has been, for generations, a largely unseen crisis in community safety.

The result: a dogged but incomplete effort at drawing the parameters of a plague that has left countless Native families wondering whether their loved ones were taken, maimed or worse.
The reasons: complications due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of the most basic race and ethnicity data collected by law enforcement agencies.
Despite the frustrations of trying to amass data that might have directed the task force toward more solutions and fewer questions, it will “remain focused on addressing the incomplete tasks identified below for as long as doing so takes,” according to a 64-page report released by the group, now known as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force.
The report, released on Dec. 9, a little over a month late according to the legislation that empowered the task force, included an analysis of data from only five of 23 law enforcement agencies queried. The noncooperation led to the report’s main conclusion that the scope of MMIWR in the state is not known and there is a lot more work to be done.
For example, the group was not able to evaluate reports from the state Office of the Medical Investigator for the past five years to determine the number of homicide cases involving Indigenous women and girls, convene all planned community meetings, complete surveys with survivors and family members and advocates or put together the “appropriate” language to use when describing and talking about the MMIWR crisis.
Each of those legislatively required checkpoints was described as “incomplete” in the report.
Law enforcement agencies don’t employ a uniform manner for collecting race and ethnicity data to track murdered and missing Native people in New Mexico, a regulatory hurdle standing in the way of the MMIWR advocacy movement. There is also no law that the state criminal justice agencies must collect that data, either, a fight that has been waged in several legislative sessions over the past several years. (The majority of the law enforcement agencies from which the MMIWR task force requested data either did not respond or could not provide relevant information.)
The task force’s struggles point to why MMIWR is a movement in the first place: It has been difficult to pass legislation that could dent this issue, even locally, or stoke statewide engagement from sheriffs’ and police departments to collect race and ethnicity data.
The Santa Fe Police Department, which also did not provide data, also did not respond to SFR’s request by presstime for specifics.
The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Offices did send cases numbers for missing persons and homicides, including their sex and ethnicity, according to the report.
Legislators are not the only ones working on the dearth of race and ethnicity date in New Mexico’s criminal justice system.
The Sentencing Commission, which looks at race and ethnicity issues from a criminal legal system standpoint, is working on a bill for 2022 that might assist the hunt for MMIWR data. The potential policy, modeled off of a recently passed law in Colorado, would require the collection of race and ethnicity data starting from the point of someone’s contact with the police. New Mexico’s Department of Public Safety would also establish a dashboard on its website that shows the race and ethnic breakdown of police contacts and arrests.
While the commission’s work is offender-focused, Sentencing Commission Deputy Director Douglas Carver says the ideas could be applied to more victim-centered data collection efforts.
“I think anything that focuses on these gaps in our information, our gaps in data, is useful for the whole concept,” Carver says. “And I think these discussions will help with the missing Indigenous women’s discussion because it raises the profile of the issue with the Legislature.”
Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, one of the original sponsors of the task force bill, tells SFR that while he understands it had constraints because of the pandemic, there were a lot of things missing from the report: specifically, policy directives that legislators could push this session.
Lente says the limited availability of data and the pandemic contributed to the incomplete report. Despite the lateness of the group’s conclusions and the 2021 session’s constrictions, namely that each policymaker can only bring five pieces of legislation and the session will be virtual, Lente says that he is still considering a bill as a follow-up to the report in the upcoming session.
“I have no problem at all focusing on data collection, data sharing and communication as the next step,” Lente tells SFR. “The problem is not going away.” 
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