Legislature approves more support for missing and murdered Indigenous cases

State lawmakers have added protections to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people in Alaska, a move celebrated by activists who have devoted years to a campaign for equity.

Senate Bill 151 passed with a combined 57-1 vote earlier this month.

Under the new law, the state must employ two full-time, dedicated investigators to pursue cold cases and must include cultural training in police officer training. It also establishes a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Review Commission and requires that state public safety officials consult with tribes for a statewide needs assessment.

Charlene Aqpik Apok, director of Data for Indigenous Justice, a nonprofit database that tracks missing and murdered Indigenous people in Alaska, remembers when it was hard to get lawmakers to agree to a meeting about the issue of violence against Alaska Native people, let alone influence policy. So when the Alaska Senate passed legislation aimed at doing just that, Apok felt the significance when their 9-year-old son said, “Oh my god, you’re about to pass a law!”

“It’s almost unbelievable and I feel a range of emotions. It’s such a huge thing to be celebrated,” Apok said. “It also is just a starting point, we have so much more to do. But I’m so excited to celebrate it. And I’m ready to see what else we can get done.”

Apok lost close family members to violence — mother, auntie and cousin — which makes the work personal. They said it was important to see so much Indigenous-led collaboration.

Golovin Sen. Donny Olson, who is Inupiaq, proposed the legislation to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people that affects communities across the state. Coincidentally, he and Apok are from the same village of fewer than 200 people.

Joel Jackson, president of the Organized Village of Kake, was one of the testifiers in support of the bill. He said the move is a long time coming. “Our Indigenous communities have been long overlooked for too long,” he said. “It’s time to be treated equally.”

Jackson was among advocates who came to the Capitol to advocate for changes intended to make law enforcement and justice equitable for Alaska Native communities.

Public Safety Commissioner James Cockrell advocated for the legislation, and he said lawmakers should be proud of the direction the state is going in regard to making sure Alaska Native people have equal access to justice. He said the state has struggled with the issue for years and he is pleased by the commitment in law to support a council to address it.

The bill takes effect next January, but Cockrell said his department already has most of its new requirements in place. Cockrell currently has four MMIP investigators on staff, double what the new law requires, and is planning how to structure research for the report that will be due in a few years.

“I think my ultimate goal is that, whatever we set forth, that it will outlast me — and the next commissioner will have to continue the progress so it won’t go away,” he said of the new regulations.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com.

 

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