Acknowledgement of the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people in Wyoming has created momentum for a new alert system for at-risk missing adults.
The tool being pursued, called the Ashanti alert system, would not necessarily require a change in statute to implement. Nevertheless, the Wyoming Legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations voted 4-1 last week to advance a bill to integrate federal, tribal and local law enforcement agencies under a common Amber-alert like system. Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne), who co-chairs the committee, said she favors putting the missing adult alert system in statute so that it has the force of law and cannot be ignored.
“I would like to see this alert up and running — I wish it was already up and running — but how do we make sure that it, first of all, gets done by our agencies, and then in the future doesn’t slip through the cracks?” Ellis said.
Ellis made those remarks in response to questions of whether a statutory approach was the right one. Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) voted against the bill out of concern that a legislative approach could slow or even stop momentum of getting the system online.
“Nobody will implement anything until the bill is actually signed by the governor,” Case said.
Case also worried that the changing makeup of the Wyoming Legislature — which is shifting “away from government” — could lead the bill to fail, and that in turn could lead agencies to become “gun shy” to implement the alert system voluntarily.
The Ashanti alert system is named after 19-year-old Virginia resident Ashanti Billie, who went missing after being abducted in 2017 and was found dead two weeks later 350 miles away. The circumstances of Billie’s death raised questions about the lack of a state, regional or national missing persons alert system for people over the age of 17, and led to the federal Ashanti Alert Act of 2018.
An Ashanti alert is applicable to missing adults with special needs or circumstances and also missing adults who are “endangered” or have been involuntarily abducted or kidnapped.
In Wyoming and elsewhere, the Ashanti alert system can be employed for any missing person, not just Indigenous residents. But it’s a response to a problem that has disproportionately affected members of the Northern Arapaho, Eastern Shoshone and other tribes. Ahead of the Tribal Relations Committee taking any action, Emily Grant, the lead researcher for Wyoming’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Statewide Report, ran through some of the most recent missing peoples’ numbers. In 2021, Indigenous people accounted for 17% of Wyoming’s missing persons cases even though they’re just 3% of the overall population.
“In 2022 so far it’s 16%,” Grant said, “so pretty steady there.”
Minors and females go missing at the highest rates, she said, though 42% of 2021 missing people were males and all age groups have been represented.
Indigenous peoples typically go missing for longer, too. Overall, about 25% of missing persons records are cleared or closed the same day the person was reported missing, Grant said. For American Indians and Alaskan Natives, she said, the same-day clearance rate is only about 14%.
Tribal Relations Committee co-chair Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) pressed experts on what’s going on with a rash of missing young people in Fremont County.
“We had what I thought was an extremely high number of young missing people from the Wind River Reservation from July [and] August on,” Larsen said at the meeting. “Can we get our head around that at all?”
Wyoming Attorney General’s Office staffer Cara Chambers, who directs the Division of Victim Services, told Larsen she suspected the “increase” was actually just the status quo getting more attention.
“We’ve really put a huge emphasis on missing people in our state,” Chambers said.
The Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, for example, recently made its missing persons webpage forward-facing and accessible to the public — previously it was only available to law enforcement. In early September, a local news website ran a story highlighting seven Native American teenagers who had gone missing in Fremont County that summer, a report based entirely on DCI’s database.
The Ashanti alert system is the only missing and murdered Indigenous people-related bill the Select Committee on Tribal Relations is considering for the upcoming legislative session. Chambers, however, told WyoFile she’s got ideas for some changes to statute that could help stem the crisis.
“I think we need to do a better job of mandating certain types of training for law enforcement, though that might be unpopular,” Chambers said. “We could also do better with what we collect data on.”
There are already statutes in both those realms, but they are poorly enforced and lacking teeth.
“For example, we have a victim’s bill of rights, but there’s no statutory consequence for not complying,” Chambers said. “We have a statute that requires law enforcement to report data to DCI, but there’s no teeth [punishing] the agencies that aren’t.”
Grant’s testimony to the Tribal Relations Committee last week highlighted the difficulty of harvesting data from Wyoming law enforcement agencies.
One recommendation from the statewide missing and murdered Indigenous people report was to do a survey of agencies’ current protocols for handling missings persons to ascertain how many are using methods considered best practices. But, “unfortunately,” only 22 of the 90 Wyoming law enforcement agencies surveyed responded, Grant said.