OKLAHOMA CITY — Partnered with tribal members, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers is proposing legislative reforms aimed at reducing the number of missing and murdered indigenous Oklahomans.

Legislative proposals include creating a new role at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, strengthening training for law enforcement, adding a “Red Alert” system and mandating the state Department of Education to compile a photo repository of every school-aged child in Oklahoma.

Brenda Golden, a citizen-advocate from Okmulgee, said many police departments don’t take missing indigenous cases seriously, instead telling relatives they’re just “out drinking or drugging and they’ll be back.”

Officers take them seriously after weeks or months, and the trail goes cold, said Golden, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

“We ask the Legislature to adopt a system that will protect this vulnerable population of indigenous people and also put into process a system for alerting the media to missing persons who are in danger of abduction and serious harm,” she said.

To crack down on the critical “epidemic,” she said the Legislature must require one hour of training on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous people along with cultural sensitivity.

“I call this an epidemic because it is,” she said. “It’s a crisis across the United States. This has been a crisis for over 20 years, but only recently has it gained momentum in the United States and Canada.”

Golden said Oklahoma ranks 10th in the nation for the number of missing and murdered indigenous people.

Over the summer, advocates reported about 130 cases statewide involving missing or murdered indigenous women.

“The state government has a duty to all citizens to protect us, and here we’re not being protected,” she said.

State Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City, said the root cause of the missing and murdered indigenous crisis dates back to assimilation. The lawmaker said federal legislation passed over a century ago intentionally eroded and undermined tribal sovereignty.

He’s proposed House Bill 3345, which would create a position within the State Bureau of Investigation that coordinates with indigenous communities to help families navigate the complex jurisdictional boundaries.

“One of the issues that kept coming up when I was meeting with tribal members across the state was a lack of trust with state government, and we want to build bridges,” Dollens said.

State Rep. Merleyn Bell, D-Norman, said she’s filed two measures aimed at helping the Native community.

The first, House Bill 3892, would require law enforcement to collect detailed biographical information about missing children, the person reporting the child missing and an alleged suspect. That information would include tribal affiliation.

Bell said police already collect biographical information about missing people, but they’re not getting accurate facts about this specific population.

“We know we can’t make good decisions without good data,” she said.

Bell also proposed House Bill 3893 that requires the state Department of Education to compile an electronic repository of photographs for all children enrolled in school. That should ensure a current a picture for law enforcement to use when locating missing children, she said.

She said the repository would be updated every year and would allow parental opt-out. Bell said she’s still determining who would take the photos, but is considering partnering with private photography companies.

State Rep. Daniel Pae, R-Lawton, also has filed House Bill 2847 that would create a “Red Alert System,” which would notify the public and media about missing indigenous people who are in danger of abduction or serious harm.

He’s also proposed House Bill 2848 that would require law enforcement officers complete one hour of cultural competency and sensitivity training on the issue of missing and murdered indigenous people.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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