A study released by a Native American non-profit says numerous police departments in cities nationwide are not adequately identifying or reporting cases of missing and murdered indigenous women.
( AP Photo/David Goldman, File
Tanzina Vega: This is The Takeaway with Tanzina Vega. As we've been following on the show, Indigenous women around the country have fallen victim to violent crime for years. As of 2018, at least 500 Indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been murdered, and for some lawmakers, it's personal.
Angela Romero: Many of my friends in and from different tribal communities have a family member who's went missing or have had a family member who's been murdered and they never received an answer of what happened. For me, it is personal and it's a commitment I've made to people who I care about and I love.
Tanzina Vega: That was Utah State Representative, Angela Romero, who created a task force on murdered and missing Indigenous women to help close the information gap. Last week, the United States Congress passed legislation of its own after years of delays to address this crisis. The two bills attempt to bolster local and federal law enforcement resources needed to investigate these cases. President Trump is expected to sign the measures into law.
Joining me now is Congresswoman Norma Torres, Democrat from Southern California, and the sponsor of one of the pieces of legislation known as Savanna's Act. Congresswoman, welcome to the show.
Norma Torres: Thank you so much. It's great to be with you.
Tanzina Vega: Can you explain what some of the key components of Savanna's Act are?
Norma Torres: Absolutely. This is such an important first step to ensuring that we bring justice to the families of these murdered and missing Indigenous women. What the bill does is it creates new guidelines for responding to these cases and incentivizes various law enforcement agencies to implement them. In essence, what we're doing is we're saying, "Look, it's not good enough for a tribal government that may not have a whole lot of resources to have to bear the brunt of this investigation. Our law enforcement agencies need to work together, from state, local, and federal agencies working to support tribal law enforcement agencies to help bring about justice."
Tanzina Vega: Congresswoman, the bill is named after Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind. Who was she?
Norma Torres: Savannah was a 22-year-old young woman who was eight months pregnant. She was a member of the Spirit Lake tribe. She was excited about bringing her new baby to the world, planning for the birth of her baby when she was invited next door to a neighbor's apartment. She was tricked into going there to go help them with a project and instead, the baby was cut out of her. This is a horrific case that brought myself and many of my colleagues into action.
We said, "This horrible murder should not have happened and we need to do better," as we started looking into how much violence is happening around native women. We know that 84% of them experience some form of violence in their lifetime and they're 10 times higher than the national average to be murdered. That alone tells us that we need to pay better attention to this and we need to ensure that we bring the folks that are committing these crimes to justice.
Tanzina Vega: The Senate version of Savanna's Act was sponsored by Republican Lisa Murkowski. Congresswoman, I'm wondering is there generally bipartisan agreement on the urgency of issues affecting Indigenous communities?
Norma Torres: There generally is not a whole lot of bipartisanship in Congress, especially these moments, but I would say that it has been a great pleasure working with Senator Murkowski because she brought us all together, along with Ocasio-Cortez and Deb Haaland on our side and myself. We held meetings between ourselves on coordinating how we were going to work together to advance this piece of legislation because we know that we didn't want it to get caught up in the process of systems and the bureaucracy as they got caught up two years ago, where a Republican start bringing up cheese curds was more important than the lives of Indigenous women.
Tanzina Vega: Congresswoman, the Attorney General's Justice Department would have to implement some pieces of Savanna's Act. That department is run by Attorney General Bill Barr. You have criticized publicly Bill Barr, do you trust that his Department of Justice will do what it needs to do on this issue?
Norma Torres: The Department of Justice is more than willing to help with this issue. Obviously, they're the ones that are going to have to come up with some minimum standards, they're going to have to come up with the training that is necessary. In addition to the funding, we have included funding for technical assistance and training for smaller law enforcement agencies that may not have that personnel to be able to help create a database to ensure that when bodies are found, we are able to identify them as Indigenous women that have come up missing.
Tanzina Vega: What have we heard from tribal groups in regards to this legislation? This is something that's come up. The Takeaway, we went to Salt Lake City, Utah, last year to hold a forum on this issue and there were many people there who were deeply concerned about this. Now that this is happening, what are tribal groups having to say?
Norma Torres: They were concerned, but now that they know that they have grants available to help them improve the service that they provide, I think that they are more amicable in welcoming of the legislation. We look forward to working with them on this issue moving forward.
Tanzina Vega: Speaking of bipartisan support, Congresswoman, the president, President Trump, is expected to sign this. Were you surprised by his willingness to do that?
Norma Torres: I was not surprised by his willingness to do that because as I stated, we have worked so hard, both Republicans and Democrats together, that this may have our names and our names may follow by an R and a D, but really, we are deeply committed to this legislation and to make sure that it is implemented and to ensure that those folks who were afraid to come on board, were concerned about the cost that this may have on their departments, may hold by these grants that will be available to them.
Tanzina Vega: Congresswoman Norma Torres is a Representative from Southern California. Congresswoman, thanks for speaking with me.
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