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New bill would create a missing Indigenous persons alert using Amber Alert system

Growing momentum in local, state and national efforts to end the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is helping push along legislation that would establish the first ever Indigenous missing persons alert system in California.

The bill, authored by Assembly member James C. Ramos, D-Highland, who is a member of the San Manuel Indian Reservation in San Bernardino County, would create the “Feather Alert” for Indigenous people who go missing under certain circumstances.

AB-1314, which the California State Senate Public Safety Committee voted 5-0 in favor of in a June 28 hearing, would authorize law enforcement agencies to request that the California Highway Patrol activate an “Endangered Missing Advisory.”

This advisory would use existing alert system infrastructure, set in place by the California Emergency Services Act established in 1970, which authorizes use of the Emergency Alert System to inform the public of local, state and national emergencies.

This is the same system that allows members of the public to receive Amber Alerts in the event of missing or abducted children, Silver Alerts for endangered elderly persons and Blue Alerts when a law enforcement officer has been killed, suffers serious bodily injury or is assaulted with a deadly weapon.

A similar bill in Washington created the first statewide emergency alert system for missing Indigenous people, which went into effect July 1. In June, a Colorado bill passed creating the Office of Liaison for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives tasked with creating an Indigenous alert system.

“This bill brings further attention and effort to end violence on tribal lands and across the state of California,” Ramos said in a June news conference. “The rates of murdered and missing people in Native American communities is a shameful state and national tragedy that does not receive the scrutiny and attention it deserves.”

The “Feather Alert” is co-sponsored by the Yurok Tribe, the largest tribe in California, which has a reservation Humboldt County.

“It is a top priority for us to make change and not just talk about it but creates action through legislation,” said Yurok Tribal Chairman Joe James in an interview with the Press Democrat.

Co-sponsoring the bill was important for the tribe due to the rate of missing Native persons across the United States, but also close to home, he said.

“When you have somebody going missing, time is of the essence,” James said.

After Emmilee Risling, a Yurok woman and mother of three was reported missing last October, James, among other tribal leaders, vowed to take steps that might prevent another tragedy.

The bill authored by Ramos originally included criteria that James argued were a barrier for tribes in promptly issuing an alert, such as requiring the person to be missing under suspicious circumstances and requiring that tribal law enforcement resources already be exhausted.

A new draft of the bill has removed some of these barriers, allowing tribes to spread the message faster, James said.

According to study by the Sovereign Bodies Institute in partnership with the Yurok Tribal Court, there are 107 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Northern California.

In 2016, the National Crime Information Center tracked more than 5,700 missing Indigenous women and girls cross the country. However, only 116 were reported in U.S. Department of Justice statistics, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.

In Mendocino County, the family of Khadijah Britton, a Wailaki girl who was last seen pulled into a car at gunpoint, is still looking for answers four years later.

“What do you do when your person comes up missing?” asked Laura Betts, Britton’s aunt. “Who do you contact? Because we had to find out the hard way, like Googling and researching and asking questions.

“That wastes time,” Betts said. “And every minute counts and when their lives are in danger or when they're trying to dispose of a body.”

Betts said their main frustration was the Mendocino County Sheriff’s response from the very beginning, claiming they didn’t seriously start looking for Britton until a week after she was first reported missing, and that important leads were ignored.

Betts said that she would be in support of any bill that could help recover a victim, Native or not, adding that she does have concerns about who will be determining if the criteria have been met to issue the alerts.

Criminology experts say that the first 72 hours are the most critical in missing persons investigations, according to an ABC News report.

“The 'Feather Alert’ was step one, but again, we don't stop there,” James said. “We're continuing to call for action and moving.”

Editor’s note: The county sheriff’s office which responded to Britton’s case has been corrected.

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8511 or alana.minkler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @alana_minkler.

Alana Minkler

Breaking news & general assignment reporter, The Press Democrat

The world is filled with stories that inspire compassion, wonder, laughs and even tears. As a Press Democrat reporter covering breaking news, tribes and youth, it’s my goal to give others a voice to share these stories.

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