While the U.S. Justice Department had high praise Wednesday for how Missoula moved quickly to improve sexual assault investigations, it’s not leaving those improvements to chance.
The city must work for one year with an independent reviewer. And, its progress will be scrutinized by two separate panels, as well as the Justice Department over the next two years.
“Folks will be looking over our shoulder, but we’re welcoming their work,” said Mayor John Engen.
The supervision comes by way of an agreement announced Wednesday between the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the city, specifically the police department.
The agreement to reform police department practices in sexual assault cases is a result of a yearlong federal investigation into how the city police, the University of Montana police and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office handle sexual assault reports. (See related story.)
For the next two years – or whenever the DOJ deems the police department sufficiently improved – all sexual assault cases will be reviewed every six months by an external panel that includes sexual assault prosecutors, public defenders, investigators and/or advocates, according to the agreement.
The city also must conduct a “sexual assault safety and accountability audit” to assess how the city, county and UM respond to such cases. An audit team will work with representatives from agencies and organizations – such as law enforcement, the courts, and crime victim groups – that deal with sexual assault cases.
The independent reviewer will provide quarterly reports. Engen said the city hopes to share the cost of that position with UM, whose DOJ agreement requires similar oversight.
The agreement lists several changes in Missoula Police Department policies, including:
• Protocols to strengthen its response to sexual assault.
• Ongoing training on sexual assault response to all police officers, detectives and recruits.
• Specific training related on acquaintance and alcohol-related sexual assaults.
• Close supervision and internal oversight on all sexual assault investigations, including particular attention to the treatment of victims in assaults involving acquaintances.
• A “victim-centered” response to sexual assault cases.
That last involves practices designed to “increase the likelihood of victims’ continued participation with law enforcement (and) improve the experience for victims.” It involves such things as inviting the participation of victim advocates and instructing police not to ask victims whether they wish to prosecute the assailant.
Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir instituted that practice as part of a revised police policy manual weeks before the Justice Department began its investigation last spring. The new policy came under criticism by the defense in a rape case earlier this year. The defendant in that case was acquitted.
“It would appear as a society we have not yet fully embraced what appear to be the developing best practices” in investigating and prosecuting such cases, Muir said Wednesday.
Michael Cotter, U.S. attorney for Montana, called the agreement “a sound plan, a solid program ... (that will) increase the community’s confidence in the Missoula Police Department’s response to sexual assault.”