A new unit to help police improve coordination in handling missing and unidentified people cases has been proposed by Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey amid an ongoing search for a missing immigrant woman whose case advocates say demonstrates a lack of urgency on the part of investigators.
The $300,000 Healey has proposed will help fund the unit, which she said will assist local police departments and standardize data collection and reporting in missing people cases statewide.
Recent immigrant and Boston resident Reina Morales Rojas has been missing since Nov. 26, 2022. It wasn’t until Jan. 12, 2023, that Boston police issued a missing person alert.
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In February, six Boston city councilors of color sent a letter to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and Police Commissioner Michael Cox noting the delay between Rojas’ disappearance and when police issued an alert.
“Unfortunately, the type of response Ms. Morales Rojas’ case received reflects a nationwide pattern. Missing cases of women of color are often unmet with the same urgency as their white counterparts,” the councilors wrote. “In this case, Reina is not only a woman of color, but also an immigrant, which further makes her susceptible to dismissive treatment.”
Cox said the investigation is ongoing.
“We’ve been working on that case since day one. Like with all investigations, there’s always more that you could do, but that fact is we’ve been working very hard,” Cox said. “We need the public’s help in finding out where she is or who might have her.”
Wu said the city has been supporting police in the investigation and is working to strengthen connections between police and immigrant communities in part by putting out information in multiple languages.
“We know there is a nationwide very troubling trend where women, and often women of color particularly from immigrant communities or multilingual communities, when they are missing, there is an additional sense of fear from families and mistrust and concern about government in general,” she said.
As of March 1, 2023, Massachusetts law enforcement had reported to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center a total of 1,927 active cases, including 1,908 missing people and 19 unidentified human remains, according to Healey’s office.
“To have a checklist and protocols would only help,” said Thomas Fowler, chief of the Salisbury Police Department and president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.
As of the end of 2022, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center had 97,127 active missing people cases. About 41% were children and juveniles under the age of 21.
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Of the cases, 52,243 were white, 30,285 were Black, 2,154 were Asian, 1,593 were Indian and 10,852 were of an unknown racial background. A total of 43,096 were identified as female, and 54,016 were male.
Other states have taken steps to enhance their missing person investigations. Montana and Washington have created systems for addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people. And a bill in Nevada would make it easier for reports of missing Indigenous people to be shared with the police.
Legislation in Georgia would mandate a cold case unit under the state’s Bureau of Investigation. And Connecticut’s senator has been working on a bill that would streamline the missing people reporting process and make sure state databases are up to date.
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Last year, a federal commission was tasked with improving how the government addresses a decades-long crisis of missing and murdered Native Americans and Alaska Natives.