Police chiefs respond to concerns about bias and victim-blaming in MMIWR cases

APD says it’s working on plans for officer trainings around historic distrust

By: - October 25, 2021 7:15 am

Kara Plummer, one of the organizers of the MMIW rally on Oct. 3, uses a bullhorn to do call and response with attendees marching through Old Town. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans / Source NM)

Shelda Livingston and her family say the complicated background of her sister Pepita Redhair led Albuquerque Police Department officers to discriminate against her during their investigation into Redhair’s disappearance in March 2020. 

“We feel like there was no investigation done, or completed, or even started,” Livingston said Thursday during a live radio program addressing missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives (MMIWR). “I did reach up to the officers numerous times. And they kept telling me, ‘She’ll come up, she’ll come up,’ And that was the response I got.”

Similar concerns have been expressed by other advocates for Indigenous relatives who are missing that racism and stigma around hardships lead officers to treat MMIWR cases dismissively at first, as precious time ticks away after someone has disappeared. Source New Mexico raised these overall concerns with APD Chief Harold Medina, asking if APD was considering officer bias.

Medina responded by saying distrust of law enforcement in some communities can lead to difficult interactions. He said he is working with a professor at the University of New Mexico to conduct a class for officers that helps officers understand that distrust. 

“There is this historical fear and lack of trust with law enforcement or the federal government, and this goes back hundreds of years,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is develop a cultural awareness class that kind of focuses on groups that have mistrust with the community over years upon years. And we want to kind of tell that story. So our officers have the background and the understanding of why sometimes there are strange relationships between certain groups and the police department.”

Medina, a former police chief in Laguna Pueblo, said he appointed an APD lieutenant to serve as a tribal liaison. He calls it an ambassador program that also connects with members of the disabled community and Black community in Albuquerque. He said monthly meetings with these groups includes leadership from tribal communities that surround the city, and they seek to share resources and updates on missing women and relatives cases, and others.

“Just last month we walked the chiefs through our Real Time Crime Center to let them know some of our capabilities,” he said. “And we’re consistently striving to improve our relationships. I know that a lot of times tribal members end up in Albuquerque, and I think it’s important we have good clear communication.”

These are newer efforts to address historical traumas. Family members searching for Native American relatives that go missing over the last decades often contend that law enforcement doesn’t take them seriously when they report a missing loved one, because of the way officers view other possible factors in the victim’s history — substance abuse, sex work, history of domestic violence, homelessness — and de-prioritize or ignore the cases. 

Navajo Nation Police Chief Phillip Francisco responded to a similar question about bias, saying his officers do not discriminate. 

“As far as my administration, a crime is a crime and the victim is a victim. It doesn’t matter how it happened. We still investigate to its fullest,” he said. “Victim-blaming is something that we’re not tolerating, and we we teach that in the academy, and we teach it from the very beginning when we meet with these new officers, to be objective and make sure they’re investigating and seeing what’s in front of them — not the history of the person or their conduct. It’s really the crime that happened.”

Francisco also said  the Navajo Nation needs greater resources to alleviate social illnesses like chronic addiction that he says does lead to substantial violent crimes.

“Most of our crimes have a connection to alcohol or substance abuse, but that’s kind of left unchecked, because we don’t have the programs in place, the resources to have intervention programs,” he said. “And those left unchecked turn into domestic violence, they turn into other kinds of violence. That’s where we have a lot of missing people.”

Resources, or the lack thereof, are the root of many issues surrounding MMIWR cases. From the very beginning when officers start their investigation, to processing evidence, taking cases to court and even support for people who do return home. Darlene Gomez is an attorney that provides families an avenue to access resources to keep pressuring law enforcement on cases, even advocating for older cases to be re-examined. She said the first 24-hours of an investigation are the most important. 

Issues involving tribal citizens that happen on tribal lands do need the involvement of the FBI, she said, and there can be issues if that agency isn’t contacted or doesn’t respond to an active case quickly. 

“I think sometimes it would be very helpful to call in the FBI immediately, because they have more resources. They’re able to collect evidence in a safer manner. That is really one of the issues,” she said, “And I think we need to talk about the funds and the dollars that go into law enforcement. That needs to really be a priority for states and for the federal government.”

These delays can leave cases open for years, sometimes decades.

“All these officers are understaffed. We have issues with evidence that needs to be tested and should be tested immediately,” Gomez said. “I’ve been told that sometimes the evidence can sit at Quantico for two, three, four years. And that’s not acceptable, because these families deserve justice now. They need to have answers. They need to have some type of closure.”

Francisco said the Navajo Nation receives and clears “tons” of MMIWR cases. His office has 35 cases currently, he said, and some go as far back as the 1970s. 

“A lot of the cases are short-term, runaways that come back in a few weeks,” he said. “Some of them we know they’re in hospital, but because of HIPAA won’t let us go verify that. So it’s interesting that some of these cases are long-term. We think we know they’re okay, but they’re refusing to come forward. But some of them are long-term cases that haven’t been solved, that have been cold cases, basically.”

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.