1 year later, DOJ investigation of Missoula sex assault reports ongoing

2013-05-01T07:57:00Z 2013-05-15T09:31:07Z 1 year later, DOJ investigation of Missoula sex assault reports ongoingBy GWEN FLORIO Missoulian The Billings Gazette
May 01, 2013 7:57 am  • 

MISSOULA — One year ago today, attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice flew from Washington, D.C., to Missoula to announce an investigation into how three local justice agencies handle sexual assault reports.

At the time, Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, wouldn’t say how long the civil investigation into the Missoula Police Department, the Missoula County Attorney’s Office and the University of Montana campus police would take.

But he promised the investigation would be both transparent and “expeditious.”

A recent telephone call to the Civil Rights Division about the progress of the investigation yielded what’s become the standard email response in the past year: “The public safety investigation is ongoing.”

Beyond that, the department refuses further comment.

“I can tell you that the investigation is still open and we continue to cooperate with them in reaching an end to their investigation,” Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir said Tuesday. But, he added, “I don’t have any estimation of when it will be complete.”

***

The DOJ outlined the reasons for its investigation in notification letters sent at the time to UM, the Police Department and the County Attorney’s Office.

At UM, the Justice Department focused on allegations of sexual assault and harassment, and the university’s response to those allegations. The DOJ’s action at UM followed the university’s own investigation, launched in December 2011 in response to allegations of gang rape involving students.

The DOJ told the police department it would review “allegations that MPD has failed to investigate reports of sexual assaults against women because of their gender or in a manner that has a disparate impact on women.” And the agency used nearly identical wording in notifying the county attorney that it would review allegations that his office failed to investigate or prosecute sexual assaults against women.

Two other investigations target the university: Last April, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would investigate allegations of harassment against UM’s football team; last May, the NCAA revealed that it had been investigating the Grizzlies football team since the end of January 2012 for unspecified allegations. The Education Department investigation has been combined with that of the Justice Department. The NCAA investigation is unrelated.

At last year’s news conference that announced the Justice Department investigation, UM and city officials vowed to do their utmost to help DOJ investigators.

But Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg took to the microphone to let the feds know in no uncertain terms that his office wouldn’t cooperate, saying prosecutors had done nothing wrong and that such investigations undermine “the dedicated hard work prosecutors are doing across America to fight crime.”

On Tuesday, Van Valkenburg said that “I have not heard anything at all from the Department of Justice regarding their investigation and I don’t know anything about the status of it.”

***

DOJ investigators visited both UM and the police department last summer.

A DOJ attorney and two consultants spent two days in July at the police department and conducted one-on-one interviews with nine people, ranging from patrol officers to Muir, the chief said.

“They weren’t here to interview us about specific cases,” he said. “They wanted an overview of the process.”

Peggy Kuhr, UM’s vice president for integrated communications, said that “all along the university has been working regularly with the DOJ and the DOE, all through the legal counsel office.”

Both UM and the police department said they began working on new policies well before the DOJ announced its investigation.

“Even before they came to town, we had started looking at policy changes and looking for training that we could provide that would help perhaps minimize some of the communications issues we were having,” Muir said. “So we’ve been continuing to plug along with those efforts.”

UM and the police department joined with other law enforcement agencies and the city in February 2012 to announce a campaign encouraging sexual assault victims to call 9-1-1, even if the assault occurred on campus. In March 2012, the city police department adopted a new policy on sexual assault investigations, based on guidelines from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Muir said.

In addition, he said, “all of our detectives have now been given training in what’s called a more victim-centered approach” espoused by the Oregon Sexual Assault Task Force. That training took place last summer; this year, the department is working on training patrol officers.

The university, meanwhile, launched the Personal Empowerment Through Self Awareness online tutorial on sexual violence required for all UM students who registered for the spring semester – nearly 14,000 – and that will be required for all incoming students.

A similar workshop will be required of faculty and staff next year, Kuhr said.

The idea, said both Kuhr and Muir, is to get out ahead of whatever the DOJ might recommend. In its notification letters, the DOJ said that if it finds violations, it will recommend remedies. If an agency and the DOJ can’t agree on a remedy, “the Attorney General is authorized to bring litigation in the United States District Court.”

“We know, based on the questions they’ve asked ... that we need to step up training and need to step up education, not just with students but with all employees,” Kuhr said. “And, we need to be updating our policies on sexual misconduct and how the university responds to reports of sexual assault. That’s all been going on for the past year.”

Muir said that “I would have loved to have had this over with before it even started.” But, he added, “we were going to do things (training and policy changes) whether the Department of Justice came in or not.”

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