Guest opinion: U.S. DOJ agreements benefit Missoula women

2014-08-12T00:00:00Z 2014-08-12T15:20:10Z Guest opinion: U.S. DOJ agreements benefit Missoula womenBy MICHAEL J. COTTER U.S. Attorney for Montana The Billings Gazette

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, together with its U.S. Attorney’s Offices, enforces the nation’s civil rights laws to protect against unlawful discrimination. When civil rights are violated, the department has authority to act, as it did in Missoula. Had the department not instituted its investigation, the women of Missoula would be in the same untenable situation today as they were three years ago.

In May 2012, the department began an investigation of the Missoula Police Department, the University of Montana at Missoula, including its campus police department, and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office. We initiated this investigation to address the widespread concern that gender bias was undermining Missoula’s law enforcement response to sexual assault. Both the Missoula police and the university immediately began to reform their response to sexual assault, and soon after, both agreed to a broad set of fundamental changes that immediately began to dramatically improve their ability to protect victims of sexual assault. Throughout this time, the county attorney chose to fight the department’s involvement, even filing suit to challenge the Civil Rights Division’s ability to apply civil rights statutes to the county attorney’s office.

Within only the last five months, more than two years after the initiation of our investigation, the Montana attorney general approached the department and agreed to implement much needed reforms in the county attorney’s office pursuant to longstanding authority of the state attorney general’s office. These reforms, which included implementation of sexual assault policies and training, data review, and the assistance of a technical adviser, were initially recommended by DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.

The changes will benefit all women and enhance public safety. Some in Missoula no doubt resented federal involvement in local law enforcement and policy matters, but the history of this matter indicates that had we done nothing, nothing would have been done.

Doing nothing to protect sexual assault victims was an untenable option, especially as our investigation showed that the law enforcement response to sexual assault was failing women in Missoula, and that this failure was due in part to gender stereotypes. Our findings made clear that whatever steps Missoula law enforcement took to improve its response to sexual assault would be insufficient if law enforcement did not also recognize and confront the role gender bias plays at every stage of its response. Too often, our investigation found, law enforcement failed to act on allegations of sexual assault because the victim was drinking, attended a party, or knew or at one time had dated the perpetrator. Gender stereotypes about what constitutes a rape, and about victims of rape, were interfering with law enforcement’s effectiveness, and discouraging victims from reporting or participating in their case.

Now, with the four federal agreements in place in Missoula, comprehensive changes to training, policy, practices, and oversight can take hold and prevent bias from infecting the law enforcement response to sexual assault.

National efforts

The federal government is leading similar efforts and at the national level, aimed at encouraging effective collaboration at all levels among law enforcement, universities and colleges, medical and social services, and victim advocacy groups. The U.S. Department of Justice has made it a priority to facilitate the reporting of sexual assaults, and to increase and improve the availability, speed, and effectiveness of the advocacy and law enforcement response to those reports, in Indian Country, the primary area of federal jurisdiction over rape crimes. Elsewhere at the federal level, there is renewed effort to better address sexual assaults with a nexus to campus life – a critical focal point given the prevalence of rape and sexual assault among students – and to encourage effective collaboration between university and local police, and the university community, more generally. The initiatives are among the most promising and potentially far-reaching in years – and are essential if we hope to significantly decrease the rate and harm of sexual assault.

To better protect women in their own communities, other law enforcement agencies should follow this example, take a hard look at their own practices, and make the changes necessary to keep gender bias from undermining their response to sexual assault.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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