The Alaska Department of Public Safety and the Anchorage Police Department announced Tuesday that they are publishing new quarterly reports specifically about missing Indigenous people.
Alaska has a particularly high case count of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. A 2018 report by the Urban Indian Health Institute found that Alaska had the fourth highest case count of any state. Federal, state, tribal and grassroots interests have all pushed to identify why and to improve safety in Indigenous communities.
Austin McDaniel, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety, said the agencies’ analysts had to individually go through all 280 cases of missing people who are Indigenous or of unknown race to mine that piece of information. Some of the cases date back to 1960.
“Yeah, that was a substantial lift,” he said. “We’ve never gone through and publicly provided this level of clarity on missing persons cases that are, you know, in the eyes of law enforcement still open.”
Analysts coded the circumstances into one of four broad categories. More than three-quarters were attributed to environmental events, like plane crashes or wilderness mishaps. The agencies still consider them missing if their remains haven’t been found.
Another 30 cases were coded not suspicious. McDaniel said these could be situations where the missing person fled the country and law enforcement hasn’t been able to confirm that they’re alive and well.
The rest – one eighth – fell into suspicious or unknown categories.
The department said the new reports came out of discussions on the Governor’s Council on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons. Members wanted more transparency and better data reporting on missing Indigenous people.
McDaniel said the new reports could also help inform high-level decisions about how to focus law enforcement resources, and improve inter-agency communication.
“There certainly could be a functional use on the law enforcement side,” he said. “The state troopers can access state trooper data and in reality, the Anchorage PD can access Anchorage PD data. That doesn’t usually allow us to have a ton of insight into what other agencies are doing.”
The state also committed to add every missing person’s information to a national database within 30 days of them being reported missing. In its 2018 report, the Urban Indian Health Institute said agencies’ poor reporting to this national database contributes to undercounts and false perceptions of the issue.
Kendra Kloster is a member of the governor’s council and works on law and policy at the Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center. She said she was glad to hear about the new reports and called them a good step forward, but there’s more to do.
“This isn’t, like, the end all, be all of all data systems here,” she said. “There’s still a lot of other information to collect and to put in this.”
She said there are a lot of places across rural Alaska that aren’t included in the list.
This first quarterly report only covers cases handled by the state troopers and Anchorage police. McDaniel said they hope more agencies will participate in the future.