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Up to 100,000 persons may be reported missing in the United States at any given time with as many as 600,000 reported annually, according to FBI data. The Chickasaw Nation is utilizing a broad approach to reduce this number.

 Statistics are more alarming in First American communities where people are at a disproportionate risk of experiencing violence, murder or going missing. To increase public attention of missing persons, many law enforcement agencies and grassroots advocates refer to these cases collectively as Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) cases.

Recognizing the persistent violence experienced by First American families and the broader public safety concerns that underlie many of these cases, Chickasaw Lighthorse Chief of Police Chris Palmer says the department employs a multifaceted approach to analyzing and solving MMIP cases.

“Lighthorse’s comprehensive approach to working MMIP cases utilizes expertise in divisions throughout the department, including criminal investigations, administrative services, communications, victim services and more,” Palmer said.

This emphasis on MMIP cases is shared by many tribes and numerous agencies nationwide, although Lighthorse’s commitment to MMIP cases predates even recent federal action aimed to empower First American nations.

In November 2021, President Joe Biden signed Executive Order 14053, which aimed to improve public safety and criminal justice for tribes addressing the issues of MMIP cases on their reservations.

Chief Palmer says foresight by tribal leaders enabled Lighthorse to put important processes into place even before the president’s action.

“The Chickasaw Nation recognized this need prior to the executive order and established standard operating procedures regarding MMIP cases,” Palmer said. “This included Chickasaw Lighthorse establishing guidelines on the reporting and investigation of MMIP incidents within the Chickasaw Nation’s treaty territory.”

With procedures in place, the Chickasaw Nation further enhanced its response to MMIP cases by adding police officers, investigators and crime analysts, and strengthening intergovernmental partnerships with numerous municipal, state, federal and tribal agencies.

Lighthorse also assigned a full-time investigator to work exclusively on MMIP cases.

Chickasaw Lighthorse criminal investigator Ross Ericsson has been assigned to MMIP cases since 2022 and believes it is some of the most meaningful work of his career.

“Missing person cases are a passion of mine,” Ericsson said. “I enjoy being able to devote my time and energy into the searches, interviews and research needed to resolve these complex cases.”

The complexity and potentially lengthy time required to resolve missing person cases necessitates a dedicated investigator.

“There is a considerable amount of time that goes into conducting follow-up interviews and attempting to locate victims who cannot be heard,” Ericsson said. “Patrol officers typically don’t have the time required to conduct a full-blown investigation.”

The cases Lighthorse investigates may be entirely new or quite old.

“Many cases are current or relatively new,” Ericsson said. “Others may be weeks, months or even years old before they are assigned to me. This lengthy timeline is a unique factor in solving these types of cases.”

Since assuming MMIP investigation responsibilities two years ago, Ericsson has been assigned 32 cases and resolved 25.

“These cases have all varied in complexity,” Ericsson said. “Some are solved within a few days, while others take a great deal of time.”

While Ericsson and the criminal investigations team are working to locate a missing person, his colleagues on the Lighthorse victim services team strive to support families dealing with the trauma of a missing family member.

Chickasaw Lighthorse Victim Services Coordinator Lorraine Williams says the Chickasaw Nation can support grieving families in several ways.

“Victim services is available to support a missing person’s family with a variety of resources and connections,” Williams said. “We provide referrals for counseling and assistance with police reports, as well as provide guidance and emotional support while the family is speaking with law enforcement.”

As a Chickasaw citizen, this type of advocacy work is deeply meaningful to Williams.

“I was invited to join the Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas MMIP Coalition and have attended several MMIP community awareness events,” Williams said. “It has been an honor for me to be a part of the MMIP coalition not only because I am a Native woman, but because I have a passion for advocacy.”

Chickasaw Lighthorse’s advocacy efforts include working with many partner agencies and using all available avenues to connect with the public and raise awareness for missing persons.

To better reach the public, Lighthorse recently initiated a MMIP website dedicated to providing information on missing persons within the Chickasaw Nation’s treaty territory.

The public can find information about ongoing cases and use a confidential online tip form to provide information anonymously at Chickasaw.net/MissingPersons. Lighthorse also offers a 24-hour phone number, (580) 436-1166, for residents to share information about MMIP cases.

On top of these public partnerships, the Chickasaw Lighthorse Police rely on numerous partner agencies to investigate missing persons cases that often cross county, state and tribal borders.

“Lighthorse coordinates with the many law enforcement agencies within and outside the Chickasaw Nation, as well as the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to investigate active MMIP cases,” Chief Palmer said.

This teamwork approach was highlighted in late 2021 when Chickasaw Lighthorse posted a missing persons flyer to its Facebook page requesting public assistance to locate a missing teenager. Within 48 hours, the teen was located due to the help of the Oklahoma City Police Department and a tip given to the Lighthorse tip line.

Investigators say public assistance often makes the difference in a case being solved or remaining unresolved.

“Assistance from the public is critical,” Ericsson said. “Any detail the public may have could be the missing piece necessary to solve a case. Someone could be holding an important fact that could help us bring a loved one home to their family.”

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