Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey has proposed a new unit to help police better coordinate their handling of missing and unidentified persons cases as the search for a missing immigrant woman, whose advocates say, shows a lack of urgency in investigators.
Healey said the proposed $300,000 would help fund the units, help local police departments and standardize data collection and reporting in missing persons cases across the state.
Recent immigrant and Boston resident Reina Morales Rojas has been missing since November 26, 2022. It wasn’t until January 12, 2023 that Boston police issued a missing person alert.
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In February, six Boston aldermen of color sent a letter to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox, citing the delay between Rojas’ disappearance and the police being alerted.
“Unfortunately, the type of response Ms. Morales Rojas’ case has received reflects a national pattern. The cases of women of color are often not met 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 makes her even more vulnerable.”
Cox said the investigation is ongoing.
“We’ve been working on this case since day one. As with any investigation, there’s always more you can do, but the bottom line is we’ve been working very hard,” Cox said. “We need the public’s help to find out where it is or who might have it.”
Wu said the city is assisting police in the investigation and working to strengthen ties between police and immigrant communities, in part by disseminating information in multiple languages.
Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey, a Democrat, proposed a statewide missing persons unit on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
“We know there’s a very troubling trend nationally where when women, and often women of color, especially from immigrant communities or from multilingual communities, are missing, there’s an added feeling of fear for families and mistrust and concern for government in general.” he said
As of March 1, 2023, law enforcement in Massachusetts had reported a total of 1,927 active cases to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center, including 1,908 missing persons and 19 unidentified human remains, according to Healey’s office.
“Having a checklist and protocols would only help,” said Thomas Fowler, chief of the Salisbury Police Department and president of the Massachusetts Association of Chiefs of Police.
At the end of 2022, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center had 97,127 active missing person cases. About 41% were children and youth 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 unknown racial origin. A total of 43,096 were identified as women, and 54,016 as men.
Other states have taken steps to improve investigations of missing persons. Montana and Washington have created systems to deal with the crisis of missing and murdered Native Americans. And a bill in Nevada would make it easier to share missing person reports with police.
The Georgia legislation would mandate a cold case unit under the state Bureau of Investigation. And Connecticut’s senator is working on a bill that would streamline the process of reporting missing persons and ensure state databases are up-to-date.
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Last year, a federal commission was tasked with improving the government’s handling of the decades-long crisis.