PRINCIPAL DEPUTY ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL KATIE SULLIVAN: First of all, no tribe is alike, there are very unique needs. There’s unique needs based on geography, but also there are certain unique cultural needs, the size of tribes, etc. In Indian Country the geographic challenges, the poverty challenges, the substance abuse challenges, create a vulnerable population. And when you have a vulnerable population, they are more likely to be predated upon.
HOST: From the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, this is the Justice Beat. Welcome to t he Justice Beat where we sit down with top leadership to chat about the department’s mission, activities, and priorities. Today, we welcome the Office of Justice Programs or O-J-P. The office provides federal leadership, grants, training, technical assistance and other resources to improve the nation’s capacity to prevent and reduce crime, assist victims, and strengthen the criminal and juvenile justice systems. They support state, tribal and local crime-fighting efforts, fund thousands of victim service programs, help states and tribes administer the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act, and so much more. In today’s episode, we talk about their work with Operation Lady Justice.
American Indian and Alaska Native people experience disproportionately high rates of violence compared to the rest of the country. Native American women face particularly high rates of violence, with at least half suffering sexual or intimate-partner violence in their lifetime.
One such woman was twenty-two year old Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind. Savanna was murdered August 19, 2017. She was eight months pregnant and her body was found in the Red River in North Dakota. Because of Savanna’s age, no public alerts were issued when she was reported missing. AMBER and Silver Alerts are only used for children and the elderly. In the year following Savanna’s murder, the Ashanti Alert Act, which you’ll hear more about in this episode, would address this age gap in states that enact such a system.
In November 2019, President Trump signed an Executive Order forming the ‘Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.’ Designated Operation Lady Justice, the task force aims to enhance the operation of the criminal justice system and address the concerns of American Indian and Alaska Native communities regarding missing and murdered people – particularly missing and murdered women and girls.
In today’s episode, Katie Sullivan, head of OJP discusses the mission of Operation: Lady Justice and how the task force brings together subject matter experts from multiple federal agencies. Wyn Hornbuckle, Deputy Director for the Office of Public Affairs, leads the conversation. Here’s Wyn.
WYN HORNBUCKLE: So, good afternoon, this is Wyn Hornbuckle. I am the Deputy Director of Public Affairs at the Justice Department. I’m here with Katie Sullivan who is in charge of the Office of Justice Programs. Katie do you want to introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do?
SULLIVAN: Thank you so much, Wyn. It’s great to see you first of all. And to be here talking about a very important topic. I am Katie Sullivan, the Principal Assistant Attorney General. I run the Office of Justice Programs. I always think it’s helpful to give an idea of what the Office of Justice Programs does and how it relates to the work at the Department of Justice. We are the largest grant making component at the Department of Justice. We have 6 different offices that are within the Office of Justice Programs, that fund juvenile delinquency and prevention efforts, local and state police and municipalities in public safety efforts. We also run the sex offender registry and help states become compliant with SORNA. We have a research arm and a statistical arm of the Office of Justice Programs. And then the ever important support to victims of crime.
HORNBUCKLE: Thank you, Katie. So, you and I’ve spent some time in Indian Country and looking at Alaskan Native American Indian issues over the past couple of years, so this is not entirely new area for you. You had a chance to really meet with and speak with, people around the country about these issues. But back in November, President Trump56 signed the Executive Order establishing Operation Lady Justice Task Force. So can you talk a little bit about why he did that now and what the purpose and overall mission of what this task force is going to be.
SULLIVAN: Yes, it was on November 26th 2019, when President Trump signed the Executive Order that we refer to as Operation Lady Justice. The task force is charged with developing aggressive government-wide strategy to address this complex issue of missing and murdered indigenous people. We have to consult with tribes, there is always a government-to-government relationship that we have with Native Americans and Alaskan Natives. So consultation and listening to their needs and concerns are our first priority for the Task Force. There are certain deliverables and that includes developing model protocols and procedures to apply to new and unsolved cases of missing and murdered persons in American Indian and Native Alaskan communities, the creation of multi-disciplinary and multi-jurisdictional teams that will include both tribal law enforcement, the Department of Justice representatives as well as the Department of Interior. And those multi-disciplinary teams that will have a victim service component as well will review cold cases and we also endeavor to promote great cooperation among federal, local, state and Tribal law enforcement agencies in responding to these cases. So, those are some of the components. I know that this is an issue that the White House and President Trump have been particularly concerned about. I know that the issue of missing and murdered indigenous people is one that has gotten great national attention, thank god. And this is a way for us to pool and leverage all federal resources, work in trust in our responsibility and in our government-to-government relation with our Native American and Alaskan partners and come up with a solution.
HORNBUCKLE: Thank you. Can you maybe talk a little bit more about how we got here? Sort of walking through the issue of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaskan Natives? I’ve heard those are two related, but also separate issues, in many ways.
SULLIVAN: Well, I have to say that I have had the great honor and privilege of visiting Indian Country as you mentioned. It’s been some of the most profound experiences I’ve had since I’ve come to serve President Trump and Attorney General Barr. And one of the things that becomes very clear is that, first of all, no tribe is alike, there are very unique needs. There’s unique needs based on geography, but also there are certain unique cultural needs, the size of tribes, etc. In Indian country the geographic challenges, the poverty challenges, the substance abuse challenges, create a vulnerable population. And when you have a vulnerable population, they are more likely to be predated upon. So, I think that by going and seeing, not just the negatives that I’ve just indicated but also seeing the deep pride within holding cultural norms, rebuilding cultural norms in some places, gives you a real understanding of the complexity of this issue. We are extremely fortunate to have an Attorney General who is laser focused on tribal issues and the plight of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives. And so, it has been a pleasure working with him in figuring out how we can better support Indian Country, particularly around public safety and victim services. So, it’s been a wonderful road and a great challenge.
HORNBUCKLE: So you’ve held a number of virtual listening sessions during the COVID crisis, can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve heard from people. What are the things people need and how can federal government be responsive to those needs?
SULLIVAN: The feedback that I have received, that I have taken from these listening sessions, along with our task force members, is that there is a great concern about a lack of communication between all the different law enforcement agencies that may have touched a case. So if I could explain, you may have a crime or a missing person from a reservation that may implicate a tribal law enforcement agent right? They then may call the Bureau of Indian Affairs, now we have a second law enforcement agency. At some point, it might be identified that a crime occurred with this person, god forbid, potentially a murder. You find a body. If that body is not on the reservation, and the person who was murdered, if their body is found in the county or in an adjacent land that then you have a different jurisdiction which is the sheriff’s department or a police department. There’s so much frustration from our Native American partners; it breaks my heart because they feel like that they are not being cared for, that these crimes are not, we’re not paying enough attention to what they’re doing. Prior to coming into the administration, I actually was a judge and had not Indian Country but there were some jurisdictional issues where I sat as a judge in a rural community and I have to say that it is extremely frustrating, particularly for victims, because it’s hard to get an answer, right, so you call the first law enforcement officer who was there and then they and they say I don’t know because this wasn’t in our jurisdiction. And so, the lack of communication is an issue which is where I believe that the multidisciplinary teams are going to be vital to helping ensure that there are not gaps for the families of the missing people.
HORNBUCKLE: Can you talk about what a multidisciplinary team is?
SULLIVAN: Yes. That’s one of the very important deliverables from President Trump’s Executive Order and this Operation Lady Justice Task Force and the multidisciplinary teams would include the tribal law enforcement, the Department of Interior, the Department of Justice, community leaders potentially, and victims services. So you have one team and if someone goes missing you can have that team come together. Everyone has a role and yet they are all working together in order to address the issue right there, on the ground and immediately.
HORNBUCKLE: From what I heard as well is sometimes the issue can be quite complicated. Can you talk a little bit about what the concerns of folks who might be fleeing a domestic violence situation or people who might be missing on their own accord and how to figure out what is actually going on there?
SULLIVAN: Right and that’s what makes this very difficult. Another piece of the Executive Order and something the FBI is helping with—and the FBI does have a position on this task force-- and that is really coming up with good and solid data about how many people are in fact missing, and how many murder cases have we had in Indian Country or that are Native Americans. We have a big Native American population that have been forced to move off of reservations because of the high poverty and into urban communities. So I know that that’s something that we talk about quite a bit as well is how do we serve those people, and make sure that that is addressed. Those individuals are getting their needs met and are counted in this issue and in this database. As far as the domestic violence issue is concerned, prior to running the Office of Justice Programs I was the Director of the Office on Violence Against Women, so that’s when I first came into contact with the issues surrounding Indian Country. That is when my passion for this issue was ignited, without any question.
This is what we do know, that is that women and children particularly in Indian Country, suffer from disproportionately high rates of violence. They are an extraordinarily vulnerable population which does make them more likely to be victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child exploitation. What I can tell you is that a woman testified at a consultation, and she said I tell my children, I tell my daughters – not if this happens to you, but when this happens to you, how will we address it. It’s more likely than not, that it will, violence against you or sexual assault against you, as a woman. So, it is a major concern and one that we have to consider as we do the work of the task force. Ashanti’s Law Is a bill that was passed in 2018, by Senator Warner. I have had conversations with the Senator with his staff, and actually a tremendous blessing, I was able to talk to the Ashanti family. States are now ordered to have alerts, when an adult goes missing. What I like about the law is that it is not particular to Native American communities, it’s for all adults in the state, but obviously it is available for Native Americans. What I liked about the law is that they did work with victim’s advocacy organizations, in order to put protections in there for people who were fleeing a domestic violence situation or some other violent situation and were missing, as you said, on purpose. So I really do commend the authors of this bill in considering that exact fact.
HORNBUCKLE: Very interesting. There’s another program called the Tribal Access Program. That’s been in existence for a few years now, but as I understand there is a real opportunity for the TAP Program, as it’s known to really support the efforts of this task force. Can you describe that a little bit?
SULLIVAN: Yes, I can’t wait to describe that because I love the TAP program. As I said, coming in to serve the President and leaving as a judge, one of the most important things that I had as a judge was someone’s criminal history. So for someone when I was sentencing them, that is one of the most important tools you have to make sure that you are giving a sentence that is fair and tailored to this particular individual. It’s not everything, it’s not the only thing you consider, but an important part of what you consider. And when I found out that in Indian Country, that peoples’ histories or the things that were happening, potentially someone is prosecuted on Tribal land and/or has a restraining order or something like that. And that information is not transmitted or documented in any fashion there is no database for that. I thought oh my gosh. Now if you’re Native American and you committed domestic violence two or three times on a reservation, it’s been prosecuted in Indian Country and there’s no record of that. If and when you commit violence off of Indian Country and you’re being prosecuted in state court or federal court ok, then how would that judge know what an appropriate sentence is? You would sentence that person very different. So shortly after I came is when TAP was really at the point of being implemented and I have to just really commend the Office of Tribal Justice here at the Department of Justice. Tracy Toulou, Marcia Good who now serves as the Executive Director of the Operation Lady Justice. They have done such an incredible job at getting TAP up and off the ground. It’s a very simple database to use. Funds were used through the Office for Victims of Crime and the Office of Justice Programs, in order to make this criminal and restraining order database system available to Tribes. So their law enforcement can now input the information about an individual when they have a crime that occurs in Tribal land. It’s invaluable information, it’s just absolutely invaluable.
HORNBUCKLE: And I think upwards of more than 70 tribes now have this capability and which nearly half of the tribes that has Law Enforcement Agencies, up and running.
SULLIVAN: And we’re really committed to continuing to support that program.
HORNBUCKLE: That’s great So you mention support, and you mentioned funding which is always a huge issue. Attorney General Barr has made this a real priority for the Justice Department. How as, in charge of the Office of Justice Programs, the main grant-making agency of Justice Department, how are you carrying that forward and finding the funding that you need to carry out some of this work?
SULLIVAN: So Attorney General Barr is extremely passionate about Indian Country, about how we help, and I have had the great pleasure of seeing that-- his passion and commitment first hand as I traveled with him both to Alaska and Montana, to go to Indian Country. What I can say is that when you’re looking at funding, one program that we have is called CTAS. We have all of our programs including COPS and the Office on Violence Against Women, all participate in sending out one funding announcement, we call them solicitations. So Tribes have a one stop shop. That program works, it could work better. We’re building a database right now at the Office of Justice Programs, that COPS and OVW will be part of. And we are going to make that even easier to use. The other thing that happened under President Trump, my understanding is that Native American Advocacy groups have been asking for decades. We have VOCA funding—that is crime victim funding—that is given to states, in order to provide both victims compensation and to support victim services in the state. Indian Tribes would have to compete for that money, with everyone else in the state. And they argued that they shouldn’t have to do that. We have a government-to-government relationship, and we have a trust responsibility, and they should have money for their own victim services and not have to compete at that state level. So President Trump’s budget in 2018 included a carve-out of the crime victim fund, dedicated to Native Americans and Alaskan Natives. So that program, the first year was $133 million dollars. When I took over, we had $167.5 million dollars from the carve-out money. It was being distributed in a competitive way so, we had the tribes competing for funds for very specific programs. But I had heard and held a consultation very shortly after I took this position, to hear what the tribes really wanted with that funding. It is not always clear when you walk out of a consultation what everyone wants--this was clear and across the board. They wanted this to be divided up in a formula fashion. Often times, Native American communities don’t like to compete against each other for money and they know that there are certain tribes that simply do not have the capacity to compete. And so working with the National Congress of American Indians, and working with tribal leaders and after another consultation, I am so happy to report that we were able to put a formula together and this year the money that is intended for Native American and tribal victim services is going out in a formula fashion. I just really believe that victims services is growing up in Indian Country; these are culturally-specific and culturally-competent victim services that are there for our Native American partners and I hope that this is one of the many important steps that we’re taking to eradicate the violence.
HORNBUCKLE: So on that note, is there anything else that you wanted to reflect on from those trips. The Attorney General did a historic 3-day trip to Alaska and was the first Attorney General to actually visit the interior as Attorney General and really speak to people there. Can you talk a little bit about, more about that trip and its importance?
SULLIVAN: First of all Wyn, it was very enjoyable having that trip with you. Because you were on it as well. and so You can share your thoughts too, but I will tell you that wow! That was a trip of a lifetime. Of a lifetime. A quick personal note, but my father served in the Korean War and he was in Alaska. The idea was the Russians may come down through Alaska. And my father loved it and used to talk about it all the time. So, I was always interested, because I had heard about Alaska as this place that my Dad just loved it. Going there, first of all, I was like wow! I’m finally getting to go where my Dad served. But then to go in in this way with this Attorney General who was pretty new, it was his first domestic trip. I think that’s very important to note, I believe the Attorney General was sworn in around February 17th and we went on this trip on Memorial Day and so that was in May. It was his first domestic trip and that was, I think, very intentional. And we went to Anchorage, we met with all kinds of Federations, corporations, groups, those were such helpful meetings. We met with victims advocacy groups, law enforcement groups, it was very helpful. Then the next day we traveled to the interior, which was a very different experience. You got an idea of what that might be like and the third day we went on riverboats and went to Napaskiak Village. They were so welcoming and wonderful, everyone was throughout the entire trip. And to watch the Attorney General engage with the Alaskan Native people, and groups to really have him see – what he called the public safety emergency. It really is an emergency only about one-third of the tribes – the 229 tribes in Alaska – have any kind of law enforcement. So, I like to describe it like this, imagine if you are in a very remote tribe, in Alaska and someone commits a sexual assault against you, ok, and there is no law enforcement there. So, the first thing is, who do you go to? There may be 100 people in your tribe, there maybe 75, there may be 150 but there aren’t thousands. And so, who do you go to? So you go to the tribal leaders and so one of the things that I learned is how burdened the tribal leaders are in Alaskan Native communities because they have responsibilities they probably know the person that committed the sexual assault; not probably - they definitely know the person that committed the sexual assault. And they have other things to consider. The other thing is forensic evidence and that’s something that I don’t think people necessarily think about, which is the fact that every second that ticks by in a sexual assault case, you are putting forensic evidence at risk. So now you call state patrol or you somehow contact state patrol. If it’s bad weather if could take it can take them up to 2 days to actually get to the tribe where the crime was committed. So it is difficult enough for victims to report their crimes. Now we layer all of this on top of it, what if it’s a child? I mean if something horrific happens to a child, is this a really safe environment for them, is there a person for them to go and talk too? Is there going to be an outcome? Is there going to be an outcome that doesn’t make them feel bad, because someone is banished or taken off to prison or something like that. And so it is extremely complicated and what I saw the AG really understand and grasp these issues, not just because people explain them to him verbally but because he actually went out and interacted with these people. It was really a wonderful thing to watch. I learned a tremendous amount, and I want to say that these geographic issues are not unique to Alaska. There are lower 48 tribes who have similar issues. There’s one story that I heard and that is that a victim advocate stood over a body in the lower 48 for over 17 hours just to make sure that all of the evidence in the entire scene was not compromised – just stood there for 17 hours in order to protect that so that the offender could be held accountable ultimately. Which is an important part of the system. So seeing all that and seeing the Attorney General’s commitment to this issue to Alaska and being part of what we hope is a long term solution for Alaska, is just fantastic. And then in Montana, going out to Montana, we were able to see the issue they’re having with methamphetamine. And also a slightly different make up where the sheriff’s department there--they don’t have tribal law enforcement, they have a Sheriff that is elected, that includes Native Americans, the tribes actually help elect the Sheriff. Eighty percent of the Sheriff’s jurisdiction is Native country and they may have different jurisdiction in terms of prosecution, so it can get very complicated. I was very affected there in terms of the methamphetamine crisis and in Montana generally but certainly on Indian Country and the lack of jails. They just simply don’t have places to hold people. So, coming back and trying to see if any of our funding would support expansion of detention centers and things like that—again that can be very helpful to your getting restraining orders in place and things like that so, lots of ideas, Wyn.
HORNBUCKLE: Yeah, and this is an incredibly complex issue and a lot of ground to cover so, thank you for sharing that with us. I guess last couple of things is the Department of Interior also has a role in this so did you want to talk a little bit about your role as co-chair and working together with the Department of Interior?
SULLIVAN: Oh yes, absolutely. Tara Sweeney, the Assistant Secretary of Bureau of Indian Affairs, is my co-chair. She is Secretary Bernhardt’s representative. This was the Executive Order very much anticipated a collaboration between the Department of Justice and the Department of Interior, as leads but we also work with HHS and we work with other components within our agencies. It was one of my favorite days since I’ve been with the Department for the last 3 1/2 years and that was when the Attorney General asked me to be his Representative and co-chair with Assistant Secretary Sweeney. Charles Addington who is, he is an invaluable resource. We have Trent Shores who is a U.S. Attorney and heads up the U.S. Attorneys Subcommittee for the Attorney General on Indian Affairs and he’s from Oklahoma and fantastic and a good friend. We also have Laura Rogers from the Office on Violence Against Women, obvious we need that perspective. HHS Assistant Secretary heading up their Native American issues, Jeannie Hovland. We have the FBI is also on the task force. And as I said, what’s most important is that we are constantly talking to our Native American partners.
HORNBUCKLE: Sure and bringing back to getting our heads and our hands around this topic, in missing and murdered one of the difficulties is data collection and information. Can you talk a little about how the task force is addressing the lack there of, or the data that we know and we don’t know, about this problem?
SULLIVAN: What’s interesting is, is that we have through the Office on Against Violence of Women, there’s actually a task force that has been funded for about the last 10 years. That was very targeted in collecting data about violence against women. And one of the difficulties is, is that not everyone in Indian Country wants to give data. That isn’t always something that they want to do, for cultural reasons, and/or other reasons. We find data collection from law enforcement agencies, Native American or not, sometimes to be difficult. But I think that now what I’m seeing and the hope that I have through this task force, that there is a commitment on both sides to get this data. I have to say from the Department of Justice and this is something the U.S. Attorney Shores talks about quite often and I think it’s very fair, is that we have missing indigenous people and we have murdered indigenous people. And not every missing person is obviously murdered and not every murder case starts off as a missing person case. So what we really are looking at, Wyn, when I look at this from a 30,000-foot level is just how we can do better on public safety in Indian Country. There is no question in my mind that Indian Country feels ignored, they feel like their cases do not take priority. They feel like they are somehow treated differently. I think there are some logistics that lend to that. And those are the logistics that I really and truly believe this President and this Attorney General are extremely committed to figuring out, so we can do better moving forward. That’s a little afield from your data collection, but part of that collaboration is going to be collecting good data so that we do know what’s going on and we can then surge services where they are needed based on the data collected.
HORNBUCKLE: So what’s next for the task force?
SULLIVAN: So the consultations; as I said we have 11 consultations; they’re broken up by regions. I think that is probably our biggest and most ambitious commitment. Because of COVID-19 and the respect that we have for our Native American partners, we didn’t want to go on to the reservations and potentially bring anything with us and that is the virus or anything. And so we thought that we may have an opportunity to travel to Indian Country which is our preference, this summer, but that’s obviously not going to happen. So as opposed to holding up on the consultations, we are over a 3-week period of time going to hold 4 to 5 hour consultations 3 days a week, within these 11 regions. That will be with official framing papers and from there we have started the work on everything we started this interview with: the policies and protocols; how are we going to collect data; how do we advertise and educate on NamUs; how are they provided multidisciplinary cold case teams? What we will be doing is consulting on the work that we’ve done, to see if we’re headed in the right direction, to get input, and then we will be providing a report to the President and that’s an interim report at the end of November. We then have another year to implement and continue our work and then a final report to the President in November of 2021.
HORNBUCKLE: Wow, that’s a lot of work and thank you so much for talking about it with us. Is there anything else you want to say before we conclude?
SULLIVAN: We do have a website Operation Lady Justice.gov and so if the listeners are interested in either contacting us or if they are interested in seeing more about what we’re doing and exactly when the consultations are, etc. Or any of our travel that will hopefully come up in the near future, you can go on the website and see what’s going on.
HORNBUCKLE: Great, thank you Katie.
SULLIVAN: Thank you, Wyn.
HOST: The Department of Justice has a unique role in supporting criminal justice in Indian Country. There are over 570 federally recognized tribes and more than half of the U.S. Attorneys' offices throughout the United States have Indian Country within their district. Through legislation like the Ashanti Alert Act and the work being done by Operation Lady Justice, the Department aims to review Indian Country cold cases, strengthen law enforcement protocols, and work with tribes to improve investigations and create a more seamless response to missing persons reports, and ultimately the task force aims to reduce the number of cases like Savanna’s. Her case was prosecuted in North Dakota and her murderers were found guilty. One received a sentenced to twenty years in prison, and the other received a sentenced of life without the chance of parole.
Thank you to Katie and Wyn for telling us about the tremendous work the Operation Lady Justice Task Force is doing. For more information, please visit operationladyjustice.usdoj.gov. Thank you for listening and please stay tuned. Visit justice.gov/podcasts to subscribe for new episodes and find older episodes.