The first office for missing and murdered Black women and girls set for Minnesota
ST. PAUL – A little more than a month before her late sister's birthday, Lakeisha Lee lays down a pot of purple flowers in front of a monument honoring Brittany Clardy.
Just over a decade ago, when she was 18, Clardy went missing.
Lee and her family notified the police almost immediately when Clardy didn't answer their calls or messages on social media. Lee says officers initially brushed them off.
"We knew something was wrong right away," Lee says. "After they asked us her age and asked us about her demographics, they said, 'Well, she just turned 18, she probably ran away with her boyfriend.' We knew her. We're the experts on our family."
Two weeks later, Clardy was found murdered in the trunk of her car. Lee says she still wonders if she could've been saved if officers had launched an investigation sooner.
Over the past couple of years, Lee has led Minnesota's task force dedicated to understanding why African American women and girls go missing and helping families.
Illinois and Wisconsin have followed Minnesota in implementing task forces to look into disparities around violence against Black women and girls.
But this year, Minnesota enacted a law creating the nation's first Office of Missing and Murdered African American Women and Girls.
Crisis requires the new office, advocates say
Much like offices around the country designed to find Indigenous women and girls, Minnesota's office will investigate cold cases and reopen cases where Black women or girls were declared to have died by suicide or drug overdose if the situation was suspicious. It will also assist police agencies and community groups in active cases and serve as a new point of contact for those reluctant to speak with police.
State Rep. Ruth Richardson, a Democrat, carried the bill creating the new office, saying it could help cut down on disparities in the state. A Minnesota task force last year reported that while African American women and girls comprise 7% of the population, they represented 40% of domestic violence victims. They're also nearly 3 times more likely than their white peers to be murdered in the state.
"This is a real, true crisis," Richardson says. "One of the reasons this is so important is because when we see this data that our cases are not getting solved, or cases are not getting resources, it actually puts a target on the back of Black women and girls."
Members of the task force and other advocates say law enforcement often ignores calls for assistance when Black women go missing and families have to organize their own search efforts.
"The help just isn't there," says Verna Cornelia Price. Price runs a mentorship program for girls in Minneapolis called Girls Taking Action. On several occasions, girls in the program have gone missing and have later called Price and her peers for help escaping violent situations.
"The police, they're just telling us that our girl is a prostitute, or she's a runaway," Price said. "So we've had to just kind of step in there and navigate for ourselves how to keep our girls safe."
Police say more resources welcome
Minnesota police departments vary in the way they handle cases in which Black women and girls are reported missing. The state also lacks a centralized agency focused on tracking these cases or serving as a resource to those who report them, according to the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.
Jeff Potts, the group's executive director, says his organization didn't speak in favor or against the bill, but he says having a central office that can cull missing people reports from around the state, and be a point of contact for concerned families, will be an asset.
"I think the benefit is to have a centralized office to refer people to and to coordinate with," Potts says. "That just hasn't been available in the past."
Suwana Kirkland, vice chair for the National Association of Black Police Officers and head of a community corrections unit in a county outside of the Twin Cities, says the new law guarantees additional state funding designated for solving these cases.
"I've been in law enforcement for 19 years as an officer," Kirkland says. "And as a leader, I have seen an increase in incidents of violence within our communities of for Black women and girls, and a decrease in resources and services and dedicated efforts and support to help solve these crimes."
Lakeisha Lee, whose sister Brittany Clardy was murdered, says the office could spur new hope for families of missing and murdered Black girls in Minnesota.
"We can work towards a community intervention model that really serves all families for generations so that the office doesn't have to be a forever office," Lee says. "We can end this epidemic."
And one day, fewer Minnesota families will have to celebrate the birthdays of sisters, mothers or friends without them, Lee says.
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