Seeing disparities in missing person cases, lawmakers seek changes

Bill would require more data collection, cross-agency collaboration

By: - March 14, 2022 5:00 am
MMIW protest

Kara Plummer uses a bullhorn for call and response with demonstrators marching through Old Town calling for justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives in Albuquerque, N.M, on Oct. 3, 2021. (Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

To some people with missing loved ones, it’s painfully obvious how much more attention from media and law enforcement is paid to white women who disappear, as compared with Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color. Older people who go missing, as well as those from LGTBQ communities, also get overlooked compared with their younger, straight and cisgender counterparts, advocates say.

A bill in the Colorado legislature would attempt to quantify and address some of those disparities. Four Democrats — Sens. Rhonda Fields of Aurora and Dominick Moreno of Commerce City, along with Reps. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez and Jennifer Bacon of Denver — are leading the charge.

Senate Bill 22-95 grew out of conversations Fields had with crime victims, she said during the bill’s first hearing in February. With the legislation, she aimed to “strengthen how we find missing persons as it relates to their gender, especially women of color.”

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The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday by a vote of 9-2. Reps. Stephanie Luck, a Penrose Republican, and Terri Carver, a Republican from Colorado Springs, were opposed.

Report on race, age, ethnicity in missing person cases

SB-95 would require the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice to report annually on missing person cases in the state, including trends over time. The report would need to include specific data on older women and women from Black, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Indigenous and Latino communities who go missing. Law enforcement already collects data on the race, ethnicity and age of missing people, Bacon explained, but the bill would task the Division of Criminal Justice with analyzing that information.

“We’re asking them to identify trends as far as … are we making sure that adequate coverage is happening equitably across whoever is coming up missing?” Bacon said during the bill’s Tuesday hearing. “We want to make sure that that is happening.”

Two other groups — people with disabilities and those from the LGBTQ community — were originally included in the bill but were removed by amendment in the Senate. Sponsors supported the change because the Department of Public Safety doesn’t collect data on those two populations, Moreno said in a text.

“I think there’s more work for us to do,” Fields told Newsline, suggesting that could come in future policies. Right now, she said, SB-95 provides a way for the state to analyze the data that law enforcement already collects.

But during a hearing Tuesday in the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, an Adams County Democrat, pressed a representative from the Division of Criminal Justice on why transgender women were left out.

Jennifer Bacon
Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver, speaks in favor of Senate Bill 21-116 on the House floor June 2, 2021. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

Chris Schaefer, deputy director of investigations for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, replied that gender identity was excluded from the bill because it would be harder to get accurate data on that from local law enforcement agencies.

“It is not a standard question that is asked, and I guess we see it as a barrier — we see it as an invasive question,” Schaefer said. “That question is not currently asked, nor is it in the record management system.”

Benavidez argued that she still would like to see available data on the number of cases where a missing person was reported as transgender. “It would be an important data point, even though incomplete,” she said.

Better collaboration among agencies

Another section of SB-95 would deal with how quickly law enforcement agencies accept missing person cases while encouraging cross-agency collaboration. Currently, according to the bill sponsors, challenges with figuring out which agency has jurisdiction can sometimes keep investigators from taking on cases, losing precious time. This is often the case with Indigenous women who go missing or are murdered on tribal lands.

SB-95 would require agencies to accept a missing person case regardless of whether the person lived in their jurisdiction. An amendment to the original bill allows officers to exercise discretion in cases where they suspect domestic abuse or stalking.

But in most cases, the bill would require law enforcement agencies that receive a report of a missing child to notify the Colorado Bureau of Investigation within two hours and enter information into a statewide database called the Colorado Crime Information Center, to which all local, regional and state law enforcement has access. Upon receiving a report of a missing adult, law enforcement would be required to notify the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and enter information into the Colorado Crime Information Center within eight hours.

For foster children and young adults under the custody of the state, relevant state or county agencies have 24 hours to report a missing child or youth to law enforcement and to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The 24-hour requirement wouldn’t change under the current version of SB-95.

The original version of the bill would have given agencies just two hours to report missing foster children and youth, but that shortened time frame was amended out in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sponsors said the amendment came in response to concerns from county departments of child services. Young people living at state facilities frequently missed buses or didn’t make curfew, so the two-hour window wouldn’t make sense, Bacon said.

Some lawmakers, including Luck and Benavidez, raised questions about that during Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing.

“Doesn’t that sort of undermine the immediacy of this if they can wait 24 hours to report?” Benavidez asked.

Another amendment coming

SB-95 could be up for an initial vote in the House of Representatives as soon as Monday, and Bacon told Newsline that she and Gonzales-Gutierrez planned to bring an amendment for their colleagues to consider. “We expect the content of the bill to stay the same and for the bill to pass,” Bacon said in an email, without elaborating on the coming amendment.

Assuming it passes in the House on a recorded vote, SB-95 would then head back to the Senate for approval of House amendments.

On March 2, the Senate approved an earlier version of the bill on a vote of 33 to 1, with Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Wheat Ridge Democrat, excused. The sole no vote in the Senate belonged to Sen. Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican.

“I’m not opposed to finding missing persons,” Holbert told Newsline, but he didn’t like the way the bill would treat different groups of people differently in terms of data and reporting requirements.

Supporters of SB-95 include Violence Free Colorado, the state’s domestic violence coalition; County Sheriffs of Colorado; the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police; and Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance.

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Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Reporter Faith Miller covers the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories for Colorado Newsline.

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