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Calif. tribal police get access to state criminal database to protect reservation citizens

The move comes as part of an effort to combat the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons epidemic; there are approximately 4,200 unsolved cases in the state


Kim Peterson, left, of the Carole Sund/Carrington Foundation speaks outside the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department in 2001 to offer a reward for information in the murder of Native American advocate Allan Olvera. Behind her stand Allan’s parents Henry, center, and Dorothy Olvera, holding a photograph of Allan. (José Luis Villegas/The Sacramento Bee/TNS)

José Luis Villegas/TNS

By Emma Hall
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Federally recognized tribes now have access to the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, known as CLETS, a computer network that holds criminal histories, driver records and other databases from across the state.

With access to CLETS, tribal law enforcement can identify individuals with prior domestic violence or kidnapping arrests made outside of tribal courts, which will “start to stem the tide on being more proactive” to combat Missing and Murdered Indigenous Person epidemic in California, said Assemblyman James Ramos, D-San Bernardino.

Ramos considers it “the first step” in empowering tribes to improve public safety and prevent Missing and Murdered Indigenous Person cases, where more than half of known perpetrators are non-Indigenous.

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Person cases are not exclusive to isolated parts of the country, but are prevalent across the nation. In November, the California Department of Justice announced they are reviewing the Sacramento case of Allan Olvera, a Miwok man who went missing and was murdered in 2001.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates that there are approximately reported 4,200 unsolved cases, including Olvera’s, categorized as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Person cases.

Under Assembly Bill 44, which is now law, tribal governments and courts can see information offered by the California Highway Patrol, the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other federal and state agencies.

Without the use of this statewide system, tribal police were unable to review information about protective orders used in emergency or domestic violence situations, causing limitations in protecting tribal citizens.

High rates of violence

These disproportionate numbers of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Person cases reflect historical and systematic violence against Native American communities that remains prevalent today.

Native American people face one of the highest rates of violence out any of ethnic group, according to the Association of American Indian Affairs, with homicide as the the third leading cause of death for Natives ages 10 to 24.

“I think the saddest part about it is that everyone in the room, everyone in tribal council, could not only identify but had someone in their family that gone missing, that was murdered,” said Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok tribe. “And I don’t mean metaphorically. I mean every single person literally had a story.”

California ranks fifth in the nation with the most Missing and Murdered Indigenous Person cases, with the majority from Northern California. Around 36% of the state’s cases come from Yurok country, which is located in Humboldt and Del Norte counties according to the Sovereign Bodies Institute.

“It’s very, very difficult to figure out how to tell your four- and five-year-old why their mom’s gone,” said Myers. “It makes it harder when you have to have that conversation more than one time.”

Myers said allowing tribal police access to CLETS is a “no-brainer.” Tribal police are trained and know what they’re doing, he said, so by finally providing access to the broader system, tribal agencies can better protect their communities.

Public safety on reservations, tribal sovereignty

Tribes are sovereign nations with their own governments, law enforcement and courts. Tribes are now recognized as domestic dependent nations, meaning that while they hold some independence, tribes must comply with state and federal laws and agencies.

Laws like Public Law 280, which passed in 1953, allow states like California to have criminal jurisdiction over citizens of reservations. As a result, tribes do not have sole jurisdiction over crimes that occur in Indian Country. Ramos said laws like PL-280 were not created in the best interest of Natives.

“These laws weren’t created to protect our people,” said Ramos, who is a member of the Serrano/Cahuilla tribe. “Now, we have to go out and educate people on how we need to make sure that public safety comes our way.”

Because of the disconnect between state agencies and tribal police, there have been miscommunications and delays with criminal investigations or crime reporting on Indian land, said Ramos.

“When someone calls 911 here in Sacramento, the Sacramento police department or the Sacramento County Sheriff respond,” said Ramos. “But when someone calls 911 on a federal Indian reservation, that question of who responds — and even that delay of who responds and who has jurisdiction — could be life-threatening,”

Just the beginning for tribal safety

The new access to CLETS follows several legislative efforts aimed at minimizing the missing and murdered Indigenous people crisis in the state. California now has Feather Alerts, an emergency notification system that notifies when an Indigenous person goes missing.

But even the Feather Alert is a work in progress. The California Highway Patrol said in November that only one such alert was sent out in the entire year of its activation.

While there’s now legislation addressing missing and murdered Indigenous people in California, the state still has a long way to go to bring justice to Native American families, Myers said.

“MMIP has had a major impact in Indian country. That every single tribe, can come stand arm and arm. We have all been affected,” said Myers. “Whether you’re in San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles or San Diego, it’s an epidemic that we’ve all faced.”


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