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How a racist law is causing more missing and murdered indigenous people in California


California has the fifth-highest number of missing and murdered Indigenous people cases in the country. How did we get here?

After passing Public Law 280 in 1953, Congress essentially washed its hands of funding law enforcement and criminal justice on tribal lands in six states: Alaska, California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon and Wisconsin. That meant much fewer resources for public safety and significant obstacles to preventing or resolving cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people in these states.

My legislation, Assembly Bill 2138, will help remedy this injustice by giving tribal police greater law enforcement powers.

Public Law 280 eliminated federal support for law enforcement and courts, except for limited and specified expenditures. This has resulted in widespread confusion among tribal, local and state law enforcement agencies. Individual agreements between some tribes and local police can help, but they aren’t perfect, and miscommunication is an unfortunate and common consequence. Such agreements can also be terminated or altered when elections produce leadership changes.

Other negative impacts of Public Law 280 include the absence of peace officer status for tribal police; the inability to arrest non-native persons committing crimes on tribal lands; less support for funding and infrastructure for personnel, equipment and training; a greater mistrust of outside policing; and a general uncertainty about who to turn to when criminal activity is underway or threatened on reservations.

This undermining of public safety also affects neighboring communities around reservations because cities and counties have fewer partners to rely upon when mutual assistance is needed.

Unsurprisingly, California — like other states affected by Public Law 280 — has among the highest number of reported missing Indigenous people cases. Of the 10 states with 100 or more reported missing and murdered Indigenous people cases, five are subject to Public Law 280.

Now, California must consider revamping the way we administer this pernicious and racist law that originated when Congress was trying to deny tribal nations’ sovereignty, force greater assimilation and “protect” non-Native persons who committed crimes against those residing on reservations. We can ensure greater Indian County safety by enacting AB 2138, which would let the state grant peace officer status to tribal police.

Last year, a Native woman went missing in San Francisco. Despite mistrust of the police, the family filed a missing persons’ report that was treated dismissively by officers who said, “Adult women don’t go missing. It’s a choice.”

Tribal police requested — and were subsequently denied — a Feather Alert, a year-old state public notification system I authored similar to AMBER or Silver alerts that are used to notify the public when Native Americans are missing or endangered. Family, community and tribal police continued searching. Fortunately, the woman was found. But her story is not unique.

Victims and their families try to cope with life-changing grief and loss. Too often, children are left without parents or loving homes and become yet another Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons statistic. California ranks fifth nationally in the number of these cases, mostly in Northern California. In December 2021, the Yurok Tribe issued an emergency declaration in response to a spike in such cases and attempted human trafficking on the reservation.

California has appropriated new resources for the Department of Justice to combat violence and assist victims and tribes. Additional state funding of $12 million was approved in the 2022-23 budget to boost policing and victim support over three years.

New funding and greater attention to this tragic epidemic will help. In May, tribes and the nation will commemorate victims and their families, bringing attention to this crisis. Let us do more than remember the victims. We can help stop the violence by passing AB 2138.