U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi working closely with Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians

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Jackson, Miss. – The Justice Department joins its partners across the federal government, as well as people throughout American Indian and Alaska Native communities, in recognizing May 5 as National Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) Awareness Day. 

In recognition of MMIP Awareness Day, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland highlighted ongoing efforts to tackle the MMIP and human trafficking crises in American Indian and Alaska Native communities, and other pressing public safety challenges, like the fentanyl crisis, in Tribal communities.

“There is still so much more to do in the face of persistently high levels of violence that Tribal communities have endured for generations, and that women and girls, particularly, have endured,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “In carrying out our work, we seek to honor those who are still missing, those who were stolen from their communities, and their loved ones who are left with unimaginable pain. Tribal communities deserve safety, and they deserve justice. This day challenges all of us at the Justice Department to double down on our efforts, and to be true partners with Tribal communities as we seek to end this crisis.”

“The Department of Justice has been working hard to strengthen law enforcement cooperation with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and other law enforcement partners in order to better address violent crime, the fentanyl crisis, and other public safety issues in Tribal communities,” said U.S. Attorney Todd Gee of the Southern District of Mississippi.

“The FBI remains unwavering in our pledge to work with our law enforcement partners to address the violence that has disproportionately harmed Tribal communities and families,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. “We will continue to prioritize our support of victims and will steadfastly pursue investigations into the crime impacting American Indian and Alaska Native communities.”

“DEA’s top priority is protecting all communities from deadly drugs, like fentanyl, and drug related violent crime,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram.  “We know that no community has been spared from these deadly threats and we are committed to keeping Tribal communities safe.”

“The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is pleased with the dedicated coordinated efforts between Tribal law enforcement and federal and state partners who respond to missing or murdered indigenous person cases,” said Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians Tribal Chief Cyrus Ben. “These partnerships are critical when a tribal member goes missing or is murdered, as these types of cases may cross jurisdictional boundaries and often require the involvement of neighboring departments.”

Justice Department Prioritization of MMIP Cases

Last July, the Justice Department announced the creation of the Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) Regional Outreach Program, which permanently places 10 attorneys and coordinators in five designated regions across the United States to aid in the prevention and response to missing or murdered Indigenous people. The five regions include the Northwest, Southwest, Great Plains, Great Lakes, and Southeast Regions. 

In the Southern District of Mississippi, the United States Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, conducted a training event on March 19, 2024, with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (M.B.C.I.), the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Department, the Leake County Sheriff’s Department, and the Carthage Police Department regarding the implementation of the FBI’s Safe Trails Task Force, which brings together federal, state, local, and Tribal law enforcement officers to focus on violent crime in Tribal communities and surrounding areas.

“The recent implementation of the FBI Safe Trails Task Force has enhanced these public safety partnerships and brought additional tools and resources to our law enforcement agency and those local law enforcement agencies participating,” said Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians Tribal Chief Cyrus Ben. “The Tribe will continue to support and promote collaboration with all of our law enforcement partners to enhance our collective capabilities to respond to incidences of crime.  I commend the efforts of our federal, local, and state partners who assist the Tribe in responding to our MMIP cases.”

In recognition of the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, the United States Attorney’s Office has joined forces with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians to raise awareness for MMIW by asking everyone to wear red on Friday, May 3, 2024, to make visible those indigenous women that have disappeared and/or been murdered.  The United States Attorney’s Office works closely with the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Missing and Murdered Unit and the Choctaw Police Department regarding cases concerning reports of missing or murdered indigenous persons.   

The MMIP Regional Outreach Program prioritizes MMIP cases consistent with the Deputy Attorney General’s July 2022 directive to U.S. Attorneys’ offices promoting public safety in Indian country. The program fulfills the Justice Department’s promise to dedicate new personnel to MMIP consistent with Executive Order 14053, Improving Public Safety and Criminal Justice for Native Americans and Addressing the Crisis of Missing or Murdered Indigenous People, and the Department’s Federal Law Enforcement Strategy to Prevent and respond to Violence Against American Indians and Alaska Natives, Including to Address Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons issued in July 2022. 

Not Invisible Act Commission Response

The Department’s work to respond to the MMIP crisis is a whole-of-department effort. In March, the Departments of Justice and the Interior released their joint response to the Not Invisible Act Commission’s recommendations on how to combat the missing or murdered Indigenous peoples (MMIP) and human trafficking crisis. The NIAC response, announced by Attorney General Garland during a visit to the Crow Nation, recognizes that more must be done across the federal government to resolve this longstanding crisis and support healing from the generational traumas that Indigenous peoples have endured throughout the history of the United States.

Addressing Violent Crime and the Fentanyl Crisis in Indian Country

As noted in the joint response to the NIAC, research suggests that certain public safety challenges faced by many American Indian and Alaska Native communities—including disproportionate violence against women, families, and children; substance abuse; drug trafficking; and labor and sex trafficking—can influence the rates of missing AI/AN persons.

Further, fentanyl poisoning and overdose deaths are the leading cause of opioid deaths throughout the United States, including Indian county, where drug-related overdose death rates for Native Americans exceeds the national rate. Therefore, federal law enforcement components are ramping up efforts to forge stronger partnerships with federal and Tribal law enforcement partners to address violent crime and the fentanyl crisis, which exposes already vulnerable communities to greater harm. 

For instance, on April 4, 2024, U.S. Attorney Todd Gee of the Southern District of Mississippi, and AUSA Kevin J. Payne, Tribal Liaison for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Southern District of Mississippi, met with Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians Tribal Chief Cyrus Ben, Choctaw Attorney General Dianne Maxwell, and M.B.C.I. Special Assistant United States Attorney Brian K. Burns to discuss the Memorandum of Understanding between the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi regarding the duties and responsibilities of the M.B.C.I. Special Assistant United States Attorney and how the United States Attorney’s Office can assist with the prosecution of violent crime, sexual assaults, domestic violence, missing persons and narcotics offenses on the Choctaw Indian Reservation.

The Department of Justice has successfully prosecuted several violent crimes against Tribal members this year.  For example, on April 30, 2024, a sentence was imposed in the case of United States v. Tyreese Smith, a non-Indian male who committed an act of domestic violence against a tribal female in the Bok Homa Community of the Choctaw Indian Reservation.  Smith was sentenced to 24 months after pleading guilty to assault with intent to commit a felony.  This case was a collaborative effort between the Choctaw Police Department, Jones County Sheriff’s Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation as part of the FBI’s Safe Trails Task Force.

Accessing Department of Justice Resources

Over the past year, the Department awarded $268 million in grants to help enhance Tribal justice systems and strengthen law enforcement responses. These awards have also gone toward improving the handling of child abuse cases, combating domestic and sexual violence, supporting Tribal youth programs, and strengthening victim services in Tribal communities. For additional information about the Department of Justice’s efforts to address the MMIP crisis, please visit the Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons section of the Tribal Safety ad Justice website.

Click here for more information about reporting or identifying missing persons.