Starting in 2023, California law enforcement will have a new tool to serve the state’s indigenous peoples known as the Feather Alert. Like the long-used Amber and Silver Alerts, the Feather Alert is a coordinated notification system that will be used to notify the public when a native person goes missing under suspicious circumstances.
Motivated by the Missing and Murder Indigenous Women movement (MMIW), the Feather Alert will serve as a first step in addressing the documented epidemic of homicides and disappearances on tribal lands. Research from the Sovereign Bodies Institute found the North Coast accounts for 60% of California’s missing and murdered native people occurring between San Francisco and the Oregon border.
In February 2018, MMIW activists were gaining traction and a horrible crime on the Round Valley Indian reservation would thrust Mendocino County into the national conversation. Round Valley Tribal member Khadijah Britton was violently kidnapped at gunpoint by Negis Fallis, forced into the back of his vehicle, and never seen again. Law enforcement openly identifies Fallis as the person of interest in the case. He has been in and out of prison since Britton disappeared, but is currently free and living in Round Valley.
Though her case remains unsolved and her family waits for answers, Khadijah Britton’s disappearance embodied the problems indigenous women face. The story of a young woman falling captive to domestic violence and a known suspect walking free went national paving the way for legislators to push for tools like the Feather Alert.
In the same year, Britton went missing, James Ramos was voted by San Bernadino’s Inland Empire to serve as the first Native American in the State Assembly. Since taking office in 2018, he has been Indian Country’s legislative bulldog uniting tribes from the state’s disparate corners to stand shoulder to shoulder demanding lawmakers work on behalf of native communities.
As a result of his work, California schools are integrating tribal history and culture into their curriculum, Native American children have greater access to health care, and tribes have greater power to repatriate cultural artifacts.
Mendocino County’s Round Valley Indian Reservation partnered with Ramos in their fight to change the name of the UC Hastings College of the Law whose namesake financed the displacement and massacre of Yuki peoples in the late 1850s. After prolonged negotiations between university officials and Round Valley Tribal members, the school committed to changing its name in June 2022. The name change process is underway as the university contends with a lawsuit filed by the family of Serrnamus Hastings.
Assemblyman Ramos’s political machine and the momentum of the MMIW movement converged resulting in the Feather Alert. On December 7, 2022, Assemblyman Ramos hosted a roundtable to discuss the implementation of the Feather Alert bringing tribal leaders, community members, and law enforcement to the table. The resounding message from Indian Country was this alert system was only the beginning.
Ronnie Hostler, Khadijah Britton’s grandfather, has been one of his granddaughter’s most prominent voices in the wake of her disappearance. Looking into the eyes of local cops, FBI agents, and state legislators, Hostler has demanded action and accountability. When she went missing, Hostler told us local law enforcement took an entire week to get statements from those who witnessed her abduction.
As the years go by and her case remains unsolved, Hostler’s faith in law enforcement’s ability to solve her case has been shaken. When contemplating the inception of the Feather Alert, he thought it necessary to bring California’s sheriff offices to the table making sure they are “on board with this new law.”
Lewis Whipple, a member of the Round Valley tribe serving on the tribal council, attended Assemblyman Ramos’s round table telling the participants that the Feather Alert is a “great start.” If and when another native person falls victim, Whipple said the system “gives us the hope of bringing our people back to us alive.”
Going forward, Whipple and the Round Valley tribe “want to work with county and state law enforcement to solve crimes committed against our people.”
Connie Hostler is Khadijah Britton’s mother. Her child has been gone for nearly five years and she sees the Feather Alert system as a secondary issue to her daughter’s cold case. Like her father Ronnie, Connie’s focus is on the practices of local law enforcement that will actually investigate the cases of missing and murdered native people.
Hostler said, “I really hope it will help many families now that it has passed” but her optimism was tempered by the memories of her daughter.
Assemblyman Ramos’s round table featured a representative of the California Highway Patrol, the agency at the helm of the actual notifications sent to the public A team of 3-4 officers man the Emergency Notification Tactical Alert Center in Sacramento around the clock ready to deploy notifications when deemed appropriate.
A Feather Alert will only be deployed if the specific case meets all five of the following criteria:
- The missing person is an indigenous woman or indigenous person.
- The investigating law enforcement agency has utilized available local and tribal resources.
- The law enforcement agency determines that the person has gone missing under unexplainable or suspicious circumstances.
- The law enforcement agency believes that the person is in danger.
- There is information available that, if disseminated to the public, could assist in the safe recovery of the missing person.
If a California law enforcement agency thinks a Feather Alert should be deployed, CHP requires ample evidence for each of the five criteria. The process can be frustratingly slow for the family of a missing person, but CHP has argued the notifications must be used only when necessary so their power does not become diluted by overuse.
Local law enforcement must make the determination to use this system and have no ability to issue emergency notifications themselves. Multiple factors influence an agency’s ability to conduct a timely preliminary investigation such as their response time, investigatory practices, community relationships, and the specifics of that case. After that agency determines the case of a missing indigenous person meets all criteria of a Feather Alert, CHP will review the evidence and explanation provided by local agencies and make a determination.
Ronnie Hostler often thinks about Khadijah and her unknown fate. She has been gone for nearly five years. Her case remains unsolved despite thousands of man-hours by the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office and assistance from the FBI. He hopes the Feather Alert system could bring someone home in the future. But, the notification system seemed trivial knowing with each passing day, his granddaughter’s case grows cold. What Hostler really wants is justice.
If anyone in the community has information regarding the disappearance of Khadijah Britton, contact the FBI at (415)553-7400 or http://www.tips.fbi.gov. Tips can also be provided directly to MCSO by calling (707)463-4086 or accessing their anonymous tip line at http://www.wetip.com.