Gaps in police training hinder response to Indigenous cases

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Brian Dubray, chief of police at the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians Police Department, appreciates the efforts underway in Oregon to address missing and murdered Indigenous persons and is happy to play a role in those efforts. But he knows they’re not enough.

For one, he thinks the public conversation and training initiatives have to be grounded in historical context.

“There is a lack of trust, a delegitimizing on both sides, and some of that’s the historical relationship between the state and the tribe,” Dubray said. “Officers might just think, ‘They don’t like me,’ and not understand this is a whole relationship going back to people’s parents and grandparents. That’s why I advocate for that education piece.”

Dubray is part of the missing and murdered Indigenous persons workgroup created by the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon and teaches new recruits at the state academy. He says all new officers should be taught that there are extra steps to take when investigating such cases, such as contacting tribal police. He also wants the academy to include curriculum on the history between Oregon tribes, police and the federal government in its course on the history of policing — one of the courses he teaches.

That history of distrust is compounded when there’s a perception among Native communities that police aren’t taking the issue seriously. Portland is home to the country’s ninth largest urban Native American population, but police there don’t have a specific response to missing and murdered Indigenous persons cases.

“In the past, the tribe really couldn’t go into Portland when they found out one of their tribal members was missing, and Portland police would handle it just like they would any other missing persons case or welfare check,” Dubray said. “So when the tribe would try to get follow-up info, they faced a lot of barriers.”

“I think what we’re seeing with MMIP in Oregon, we’re seeing people who just slip through the cracks,” he added.

Portland Police Bureau Sgt. Mike Myers says the missing persons unit he supervises doesn’t treat such cases any differently than others.

“Our cases aren’t specific to any racial background,” Myers said. “Even if they’re identified as Native American, that doesn’t necessarily have a role in why they are missing. It could be mental health or drug use.”

The workgroup that Dubray is part of also developed a list of best practices for law enforcement to use when handling these cases. The list, compiled by the US Attorney’s Office for Oregon in compliance with Savannah’s Act, is “law enforcement sensitive” and will not be made public, according to Kevin Sonoff, spokesman for the US Attorney’s Office for Oregon.

But ideally, according to Dubray, police agencies would designate someone to handle MMIP cases. He added that he’d like police who are working a missing and murdered Indigenous persons case to automatically reach out to the tribe involved, both to share and gather information.

“It could be a way of sharing resources, for the agency taking the case to say, ‘We have additional information, let me do some follow up for you if you have a few days off,'” Dubray said. “It could be a resource multiplier.”

It’s not a step currently taken by PPB.

“I’ve been with the bureau for 23 years and can’t remember the last time I worked with tribal police,” Myers said. “It just doesn’t seem like something we do a lot.”

Before he became the leader of the missing persons unit, Myers supervised the bureau’s cold case detectives.

“I’ve personally never had any cases I’ve worked where we’ve reached out to communities out there that we needed specific information from,” Myers said, “and none of those tribal communities have ever reached out to me to say, ‘Hey this person is missing and we believe they’re in your area.’”

According to Laura John, tribal relations director for the city of Portland, tribal members have described difficulties reporting missing family members to PPB.

Myers said two detectives review between 1,000 and 1,300 missing persons cases each year. PPB has just three open cases where missing people have been recognized by police as Native. One is the case of Lisa Pearl Briseno, a Warm Springs tribal member who went missing in 1997 at the age of 28.

“Then one’s a runaway case and one’s a missing adult,” Myers said. He declined to provide additional information about those two cases.

“We have so few that we treat them like any other missing case,” he added.

But case counts are intertwined with the bureau’s lack of accurate race and ethnicity data. PPB is in the early stages of revising its method of collecting that data. The current system, where officers simply guess each person’s racial identity, can result in the miscategorization of Native people, according to a report by the Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI). Many end up listed as white, or as belonging to another category, when they actually identify as both Black and Native, for example.

“The law enforcement practice of collecting perceived race is absolutely problematic,” says Abigail Echo-Hawk, Pawnee, director of the UIHI in Seattle. “Skin color does not equate to race at all.”

Ultimately, Myers says he worries about the political ramifications of forming a specific response to MMIP cases.

“If we put a ton of attention into one area, other people will say, ‘Why aren’t you focusing on this other thing?'” he said.

Recruits at the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, where Oregon’s police officers go for basic training, don’t learn anything about missing and murdered Indigenous persons — not even the longstanding legal requirement to give full faith and credit to tribal court orders, according to Staci Yutzie, manager for the Center for Policing Excellence at DPSST. The closest the academy curriculum gets is mentioning the requirement to enforce “foreign restraining orders” during a class on domestic violence.

Portland police undergo further instruction after they complete basic training at the state academy. But PPB’s in-house academy doesn’t broach the subject of tribal jurisdiction, or any specifics on handling MMIP cases, according to PPB spokeswoman Terri Wallo-Strauss.

At least at the state level, that could soon change, because of legislation proposed by Rep. Tawna Sanchez, a Democrat from Portland and Oregon’s second Indigenous legislator. Introduced last year, House Bill 4102 would have required the state training academy to design for new recruits focused on curriculum investigation and reporting of missing and murdered Indigenous persons cases.

Although the bill didn’t pass, legislators included its requirements in a budget note attached to the general spending bill. The note requires DPSST to determine the cost to include such curriculum in the academy’s basic training. Sanchez vowed to move a bill forward in 2023 based on the plan DPSST comes up with.

Yutzie, who is leading the effort at DPSST to design that curriculum, said the academy will likely “infuse” MMIP training into curriculum already in place for other vulnerable groups, like survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Additionally, Yutzie said the academy will design a new class to train recruits on how to interview trauma survivors and on the complicated overlapping state and federal jurisdiction created by Public Law 280, a Termination-era law in which Congress transferred the power to prosecute violent crimes on reservations in six states from the federal government to state authorities.

Yutzie said the new class will probably be between two and eight hours long, and will build on current training intended to help recruits understand “that disconnect of trust that ties in with underreporting of crime,” Yutzie said.

Just as accurate data is the first step to form a proactive response to MMIP, Dubray says an understanding of the historical trauma underlying the lack of trust in law enforcement is a prerequisite to forming the kinds of relationships that might encourage Native people to report crimes against them.

“The best-case response would be culturally sensitive to the tribe, and would also include the ability for the tribe to reach out,” Dubray said. “In a perfect world, I would love for those best practices to be shared with all law enforcement in Oregon.”

Underscore is a nonprofit collaborative reporting team in Portland focused on investigative reporting and Indian Country coverage. We are supported by foundations, corporate sponsors and donor contributions. Follow Underscore on Facebook and Twitter.

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