Plans to develop a policy for searching for missing persons in Indian Country make sense. The Olivia Lone Bear case revealed flaws in the present approach to missing person reports.
Lone Bear disappeared on Oct. 25, 2017, and her body was recovered in a pickup from Lake Sakakawea last week.
Missing person cases are usually difficult. Unless there are indications of a crime, law enforcement officials across the state don’t immediately list someone as missing until it’s determined they didn’t just fail to notify family of their plans. In the Lone Bear case it was complicated by the fact that searchers didn’t know if she had left the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation or not. The reservation covers a vast area and when the search shifted to Lake Sakakawea it posed some major challenges.
As reporter Jack Dura noted in a story last week, the lake has about 1,500 miles of shoreline — more than California's Pacific Coast. The lake's surface area covers 480 square miles with an average depth of 62 feet. Depending on the time of year and weather conditions, there are times when searching isn’t possible. To search such a large area as the reservation and lake requires more resources than local law enforcement have available. Also, responsibility for the search changed from tribal police to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with help from other agencies.
So Scott Davis, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, is on the right track as his office plans to discuss drafting missing person guidelines for tribes, and ways to improve searches such as expanding the state's Silver Alert program.
Silver Alert is a national public notification system, especially for senior citizens, where information is broadcast across the United States.
Davis plans to meet with tribal officials and debrief them on the Lone Bear case to get a better idea of what worked and what didn’t. He said the tribes need to review the equipment and technology they have or may need for search and rescue.
Because of the limited resources of law enforcement, much of the search for Lone Bear was organized by her family and relied on volunteers. Not everyone who offered to help was useful and it resulted in some conflicting reports.
Lone Bear’s brother, Matthew, who was at the forefront of search efforts, said the family hopes to develop a comprehensive protocol for tribes to use in missing person cases. The tribes should look at all suggestions, whether they come from Davis’ office or private citizens.
Missing person cases are difficult whether on a reservation or in cities like Bismarck or Fargo. Relatives and friends want to find their loved one and searches often seem slow to them. Last year when Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind disappeared and was found murdered, Fargo police were criticized for not responding quicker. Police later pointed out how many officers were put on the case.
Having a good policy in place, an alert public and volunteers when needed, seems to be the best approach to missing person cases. The problems encountered in the Lone Bear case aren’t unusual in many ways and it shows it’s still possible for someone to vanish in this digital age. We need to keep improving our processes and hope for the best outcomes.