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FBI ‘surge’ to tribal lands results in arrests and investigations

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The FBI seal is pictured in Omaha, Neb.

The FBI seal is pictured in Omaha, Neb., on Aug. 10, 2022.

Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

In recent months, FBI agents have “surged” to tribal lands, investigating dozens of missing person cases and violent crimes, the bureau announced Friday.

More than 220 cases were handled by FBI investigators as part of the bureau’s missing and murdered Indigenous persons strategy. Operation Not Forgotten resulted in 40 arrest and search operations, and the identification of four children who were victims of crimes, FBI Section Chief Jonathan Tapp told CNN on Sunday.

Tapp said the operation focused on death investigations and sex crimes.

The bureau announced the results of the operation on Friday, where more than 40 FBI special agents, intelligence analysts and victim specialists were assigned across 10 field offices, most in the West.

That includes the Salt Lake City field office, which received six special agents and a staff operations specialist who were on assignment between July and September. A special agent was also assigned to Vernal.

“We recognize that Indigenous women and children are too often the victims of violent crime,” said Shohini Sinha, Special Agent in charge of the Salt Lake City FBI office. “This operation reaffirms our commitment to keeping our tribal communities safe and working closely with our tribal partners to hold perpetrators accountable. Every victim matters, and every family deserves justice for criminal actions against their loved ones.” 

CNN also reported that prior to Operation Not Forgotten, the FBI worked to locate nearly 200 people who had gone missing from the Navajo Nation, the country’s largest Indian reservation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

In what has been labeled a public health crisis, rates of murder, rape and violent crime among Native American and Alaska Native women are higher than the national average, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Nearly 85% of American Indian and Alaska Native women experienced some kind of violence in their life, according to a 2016 study from the National Institute of Justice. And more than 56% have experienced sexual violence. In total, the study found that more than 1.5 million American Indian and Alaska Native women in the U.S. experienced violence in their lifetime.

Yet accurate data on women who go missing from reservations is hard to come by. Sometimes a lack of community trust in law enforcement means crimes or disappearances go unreported — other times, responding law enforcement is underequipped and understaffed.

“A lot of rural areas lack access to specialized investigative resources and capacity, and technological expertise needed,” said Nicole MartinRogers with the Wilder Foundation, during a presentation to the Utah Legislature’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Task Force meeting in August.

According to the National Crime Information Center, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls in 2016. Only 116 of those cases were logged in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“There is a lot of cultural misunderstandings, there is a significant amount of limited resources and the way that those resources tend to be allocated,” said Kaytlin Beckett, a lawyer for the Utah Attorney General’s Office, who prosecutes human trafficking cases across the state.

During the August task force meeting, Beckett told lawmakers she sees biases and harmful stereotypes that can hinder reporting crimes and investigations, even from law enforcement.

“I do still deal with the issues like ‘this person was engaged in substance abuse, so they can’t be a victim of trafficking,’” she said. “... We do need to acknowledge that sometimes there are those shortcomings, whether they’re intentional or not.” 

In a statement, the FBI says the victim specialists assigned to Indigenous communities worked to remedy some of the criticism around how law enforcement investigates violent crime on reservations.

“These victim specialists have received specialized training to understand the cultural sensitivities and unique needs of Indigenous victims, ensuring that voices are heard, rights are protected, and the necessary resources for healing and recovery are received,” the statement reads.

The FBI declined an interview request to further comment on Operation Not Forgotten.