The lack of a full accounting of missing Indigenous persons in the United States is often referred to as a “data crisis”. While nationwide missing person databases do exist, it is clear these systems do not currently contain records of all American Indian and Alaska Native men and women who have gone missing. There are many reasons for this gap in information collection and sharing, such as lack of clear law enforcement protocols related to missing adults, complex tribal jurisdictional issues, and lack of awareness of the vast resources available to tribal law enforcement agencies, tribal leaders, and family members of missing Indigenous persons through the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs.
Through the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), NamUs offers powerful technology and forensic services to resolve missing and unidentified person cases across the nation, and gives tribal law enforcement agencies and tribal leaders insight into the nature and number of missing persons within their communities and beyond their tribal jurisdictions. With full funding by the NIJ, all NamUs resources and services are provided at no cost.
Using state-of-the-art technology provided by NamUs, users of the NamUs 2.0 system can store, search, and compare case information to find connections and investigative leads. The suite of forensic services offered through NamUs includes fingerprint examination, odontology, DNA analysis, and forensic anthropology.
Some of the many functions and features included in this powerful case resolution tool are:
- Advanced searching to locate matching demographics, descriptors, and other distinctive characteristics of a missing or unidentified person
- Automatic comparison of cases based on geography, dates, and physical features
- Advanced mapping tools that allow users to quickly generate customized case maps that include geographic landmarks, such as Indian Reservation borders
However, NamUs is much more than its robust database technology. Behind that system is a seasoned staff of trusted subject matter experts who provide investigative support, forensic services, case analysis, and support to families who have been left behind and continue to search for answers. NIJ and NamUs staff will continue to provide outreach to Indian country and are committed to providing training and technical assistance to the stakeholders in this community, and especially support struggling families through the new NamUs Victim Services Unit being launched in 2019. While much has been said about the levels of crime and violence in American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities there still remains no conclusive “number”, only the agreement that the levels are staggering. The NIJ-supported study, “Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men: 2010 Findings from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey,” released in 2016 found that more than four in five AI/AN adults (83 percent) have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime. Since inception, NamUs has been used to resolve 358 Indigenous missing person cases, and is currently supporting another 385 active, unsolved cases of missing Indigenous persons. But we know we can do more. We can solve the missing Indigenous person data crisis by working collectively to ensure that every missing person is entered into NamUs.
Families and victim advocates can quickly create an account to enter their missing person into NamUs. From there, NamUs Regional Program Specialists review each case entry in detail, verify missing person reports with law enforcement, or connect families with local, state, federal, or tribal law enforcement agencies when reports still need to be made. Once each case is verified with the appropriate criminal justice agency, it can be published in NamUs so that it is searchable by other users of the system.
Criminal justice users can register for professional NamUs user accounts. Once their account has been vetted and activated, these users can enter, view, and search additional criminal justice sensitive information, such as fingerprint cards, dental x-rays, and the availability of DNA profiles for missing and unidentified persons.
In December 2018, new tribal data fields were added to NamUs to support the increased collection of data related to missing Indigenous men and women, increase coordination and communication among all law enforcement jurisdictions, and empower tribal governments to make better data-driven decisions. Tribal enrollment and affiliation information can now be entered into each missing person record using a pre-populated list of the 573 federally-recognized tribes, as well as a pre-populated list of all state tribes. Records can also be updated to reflect that a missing person was last seen on tribal land, or that their primary residence was on tribal land. Individual tribal residence and enrollment/affiliation data is only viewable to NamUs and the investigating agency with the system, but may be provided to tribal law enforcement and tribal leadership for increased data collection and information sharing, as appropriate.
The National Child Search Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 5779, 5780) mandates that every missing child reported to law enforcement be immediately entered into NCIC. To date, there is no federal law requiring a law enforcement report be filed for anyone 21 years or older who goes missing, nor is there a mandate to enter the case into NamUs. Furthermore, every law enforcement agency has its own policies on how to handle missing adult person cases, to include when a report can be taken to how it will be investigated.
Currently eight states (NY, MI, TN, IL, OK, AR, WV, and NM) have passed legislation mandating case entry into NamUs; Pennsylvania has introduced a bill in the state legislature to do the same. While none of these laws have any “enforcement” component, the continued expansion of state laws, and/or federal legislation, directly mandating case entry would help to address the issue.
To streamline the use of NamUs by tribal law enforcement, the system has been pre-loaded with almost 300 tribal law enforcement agencies so officers can quickly register and cases can be linked to agencies for better situational awareness across the criminal justice system. To explore all of the NamUs features, or to register for a NamUs account, please visit NamUs.nij.ojp.gov.
By working together and using the powerful technology and resources offered by NamUs, all missing Indigenous persons can be accounted for, and families of missing loved ones across the country will find resolution.