California Bill Would Create ‘Feather Alert’ Emergency Notification System for Missing Indigenous Peoples

Khadijah Rose Britton, a member of the Wailaki tribe, was last seen four years ago in Covelo, a small town 180 miles north of San Francisco. Witnesses tell law enforcement she was forced into a car at gunpoint by her ex-boyfriend. His family is still looking for answers.

“I’m still fighting,” said Ronnie Hostler, Britton’s grandfather. “I’m still trying to get the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department to explain to me why there’s no motive, why she’s still missing.”

Britton’s case is not new, said Assemblyman James Ramos, D-Highland (San Bernardino County). Ramos grew up on the San Manuel Indian Reservation in San Bernardino County, where he has heard of cases of missing and murdered Native Americans “for years now,” he said.

In the United States, more than 2,300 Indigenous women and girls are missing, according to the Sovereign Bodies Institute, which maintains a database of missing Indigenous women and girls, reported in 2020.

Ramos wrote AB1314, a bill that would introduce a new emergency notification system for missing Indigenous people. If enacted, AB1314 would allow law enforcement to request the California Highway Patrol to activate an endangered notice — a feather alert — if the case of a missing Native person meets a four criteria:

• The person was unwittingly abducted or kidnapped.

• The agency investigating the case has exhausted all available local/tribal resources.

• The person is reported missing in inexplicable or suspicious circumstances.

• The notice would provide the public with useful information to locate the person.

A feather alert would be issued through the existing infrastructure used for Amber Alerts, which are notifications sent to the public when a child is determined to be missing and in danger, Ramos said. Signs along state highways would light up with information about the missing person. Those who already receive Amber Alerts in the form of phone and text notifications will also receive Feather Alerts.

Ramos’ bill passed the state assembly in May and is expected to be heard by the state senate in August.

Similar efforts are underway in other Western states. This month, Washington has become the first state initiate a statewide emergency alert system for missing Indigenous peoples, and a similar invoice made its way through the Colorado legislature. Ramos said he studied both states’ bills, hoping to secure a successful program for California.

“It’s not going to solve everything, and we have to refine some things down the road,” Ramos said. “But the most important thing is now, with the support we’re getting outside of Indian Country here in the state of California, we’re able to move forward on bills.”

Hostler said he believes AB1314 will help families facing situations like his, especially since 11 days passed before Britton’s ex-boyfriend Negie Fallis was arrested. Criminology experts say the first 72 hours in a missing person case are the most important, ABC News reported.

Fallis was arrested and charged with assault and kidnapping in connection with Britton’s disappearance, according to a 2018 press release from the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office. But those charges were dropped later that year, Mendocino’s voice reported. Fallis is currently in jail on firearms charges unrelated to Britton’s disappearance.

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A Survey 2021 of Northern California Indigenous Communities found that 47% of its respondents felt uncomfortable or unsafe to call 911 for help.

“This bill will hopefully be the first step in restoring trust between our communities, so that when one of us goes missing, the matter is taken seriously, investigated and be brought to justice,” said Annabella Hernandez, a young tribal leader from the San Manuel Band. Mission Indians. Hernandez spoke about AB1314 at a press conference last month.

AB1314 is supported by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, California Tribal Families Coalition, and California State Sheriffs’ Association.

“Time is running out,” San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus said of the missing Indigenous people cases. “The sooner we can get information there, the sooner we can help.”

Dicus, speaking on behalf of the California State Sheriffs Association, said the bill would streamline investigations and facilitate communication between county law enforcement and law enforcement. tribal.

“We certainly went to respect their sovereignty,” he said of the local tribes. “But because of that, sometimes it takes a bit of time to get to the bottom of what we’re dealing with – getting access to tribesmen, witnesses and things of that nature.”

There has so far been no official opposition to the bill, although Sovereign Bodies Institute executive director Annita Lucchesi has said she is concerned about the Feather Alert system because it relies heavily on “negligent and irresponsible” local law enforcement agencies.

“While the idea of ​​this bill has merit, I am concerned about its implementation, particularly in California, where incidents on tribal lands are at the discretion of county law enforcement,” Lucchesi said. “There is very little state-level oversight and very little accountability system.”

Lucchesi and Ramos agree that the problem requires multifaceted, long-term solutions and the cooperation of law enforcement and indigenous communities.

“Unfortunately, there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution – or you know, one bill that will fix everything. There are a lot of little fixes that add up to something bigger,” Lucchesi said. .

Camryn Pak is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @camrynpak