ST. PAUL – A little over a month before her late sister’s birthday, Lakeisha Lee places a vase of purple flowers in front of a monument honoring Brittany Clardy.
A little over ten years ago, when she was 18, Clardy disappeared.
Lee and her family alerted police almost immediately when Clardy did not return their calls or social media messages. Lee says officers initially turned them away.
“We knew right away something was wrong,” Lee says. « After being asked her age and demographics, they said, ‘Well, she just turned 18, she probably ran off with her boyfriend.’ We knew it, we are the experts in our family.
Two weeks later, Clardy was found murdered in the trunk of her car. Lee says she still wonders if she could have been saved if the officers had launched an investigation before her.
For the past two years, Lee has been leading The Minnesota Task Force dedicated to understanding why African American women and girls are disappearing and to helping families.
Illinois and Wisconsin followed Minnesota in implementing a task force to examine disparities related to violence against black women and girls.
But this year, Minnesota enacted legislation creating the nation’s first Office of Missing and Murdered African-American Women and Girls.
The crisis calls for the new office, supporters say
Just like offices across the country designed to find Indigenous women and girls, the Minnesota office will investigate unsolved cases and reopen cases in which Black women or girls were found to have died by suicide or drug overdoses if the situation it was suspicious. It will also assist police agencies and community groups with active cases and serve as a new point of contact for those who are reluctant to talk to the police.
State Representative Ruth Richardson, a Democrat, backed the bill creating the new office, saying it could help reduce disparities in the state. A Minnesota task force last year reported that while African American women and girls make up 7 percent of the population, they account for 40 percent of domestic violence victims. They are also nearly 3 times more likely than their white peers to be murdered in the state.
“This is a real, real crisis,” Richardson says. « One of the reasons this is so important is because when we see this data that our cases aren’t getting resolved or cases aren’t getting resources, it really puts a bull’s eye on the backs of Black women and girls. »
Task force members and other advocates say law enforcement often ignores requests for assistance when Black women go missing and families must organize their own search efforts.
« The help is not there, » says Verna Cornelia Price. Price runs a mentorship program for girls in Minneapolis called Girls Taking Action. On several occasions, the girls from the show disappeared and later called Price and her peers for help escaping violent situations.
« The police, they’re just telling us our girl is a prostitute, or she’s a runaway, » Price said. « So we just had to go in there and navigate ourselves on how to keep our girls safe. »
Police say more resources are welcome
Minnesota police departments vary in how they handle cases where black women and girls are reported missing. The state also lacks a centralized agency focused on tracking these cases or serving as a resource for those who report them, according to the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.
Jeff Potts, the executive director of the group, says his organization has not spoken out for or against the bill, but says it has a central office that can collect missing person reports from across the state and that it is a point of contact for interested families, will be an asset.
“I think the benefit is having a centralized office to route people to and coordinate with,” Potts says. « This hasn’t been available in the past. »
Suwana Kirkland, vice president of the National Association of Black Police Officers and head of a community corrections unit in a county outside the Twin Cities, says the new law secures additional state funding intended to resolve these cases.
“I was 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 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 spark new hope for the families of missing and murdered black girls in Minnesota.
“We can work toward a community intervention model that truly serves all families for generations so that the office doesn’t have to be an office forever,” 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.