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One woman who reported a gang rape to the Missoula Police Department was told it was “probably just a drunken night and a mistake.”

In another case, a detective characterized a reported rape – during which the woman repeatedly said “no” – as “mostly voluntary fueled by alcohol.” Other women reporting rapes were asked about their sexual histories.

All of which contributed to the finding announced Wednesday by the U.S. Justice Department that Missoula police practices discouraged rape victims from cooperating with law enforcement.

“MPD’s investigations are marked by practices that significantly compromise the effectiveness of MPD’s response to sexual assault and contribute to the under-enforcement of sexual assault laws in Missoula,” according to a letter from the DOJ to Missoula Mayor John Engen.

The mayor said Wednesday that “while we may not necessarily agree with all the allegations, we’re ready to move forward.”

In announcing that the police department has agreed to reform the way it handles reports of sexual assault, the Justice Department commended Missoula for starting those reforms even before the DOJ began an investigation a year ago.

That investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division also included an examination of how the University of Montana police and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office handle sexual assault cases. Last week, DOJ announced a similar agreement with the University of Montana.

Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg has refused to cooperate with federal investigators, saying his office did nothing wrong and that the feds have no authority for their action.

Wednesday’s announcement came in the form of a conference call that included Roy L. Austin Jr., deputy assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division; Michael Cotter, U.S. attorney for Montana; Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir; and Engen.

“Because of this agreement, all community citizens, men and women, will be safer,” said Cotter.

As he did last week when UM’s agreement was announced, Cotter said the Missoula Police Department pact serves as a national model for other agencies struggling with similar issues.

Indeed, added Austin, “the concerns we raise in our letter are not unique to Missoula. … Far more significant are the steps the city and police department of Missoula have agreed to take to improve its response.” (See related story.)

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Justice Department investigators spent 10 days in Missoula over the past year, and conducted more interviews by telephone. They interviewed Muir and nine police detectives and officers, representatives of 11 community and UM groups representing women and sexual assault victims, and more than 30 women – or their representatives – who reported being sexually assaulted.

They also reviewed police procedures and training materials, court records and the case files for more than 350 reports of sexual assault to the police department between January 2008 and May 2012.

In addition to practices that discourage women from reporting sex crimes, “our investigation further showed that there is no legitimate law enforcement or other reason for these inadequacies,” according to the DOJ letter.

“Rather, these investigative weaknesses appear due, at least in part, to stereotypes and misinformation about women and victims of sexual assault.”

The fact that the problems disproportionately affect women amounts to a violation of the Safe Streets Act, and the police department’s response amounts to discrimination that violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, according to the DOJ.

However, as part of the agreement, the city and the police department “expressly deny any claim of constitutional or statutory violations.”

***

The Justice Department letter, signed by Cotter and Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, detailed some of the problems found during the investigation. Among them:

• A UM student who reported being assaulted at a fraternity house told police she’d repeatedly said “no” and pushed at her assailant, who was more than twice her size. But the detective’s case report termed the incident “mostly voluntary fueled by alcohol,” and left out statements about her resistance.

• Women reporting sexual assault were commonly asked whether they wished to prosecute, leading them to believe it was up to them, rather than the County Attorney’s Office, whether to take such action. “That is not the kind of question that is asked of people in most situations where they’re the victim of a crime,” Austin said Wednesday.

• The police department required victims and witnesses to be interviewed at the police station, a “practice more appropriate for an interrogation of a suspect than an interview of a crime victim.” Women typically were interviewed without an advocate, even though Montana law gives sexual assault victims the right to have an advocate with them.

• Police relied on women’s sexual histories in evaluating reports of sexual assault. “That reliance in turn reflects assumptions and stereotypes about women, such as assumptions that women who are sexually active are less likely to be legitimate victims of sexual assault.”

• The police “routinely failed to timely share information about sexual assault involving UM students with either university officials or with OPS (UM’s Office of Public Safety).” Although in one case the police told the football coach about a report of sexual assault by student athletes, UM officials didn’t learn about the allegations until nearly a year later.

The letter also mentioned communication problems with the County Attorney’s Office regarding its decisions on whether to prosecute sexual assault cases.

Police administrators “acknowledged that detectives are ‘frustrated’ with MCAO’s ‘lack of follow-up and prosecution’ in cases of sexual assault.”

And, the County Attorney’s Office routinely provides no information to police about why it declines to prosecute some sexual assault cases, according to the letter.

Austin said Wednesday that his office has been in touch with the County Attorney’s Office, but with no resolution to the lack of cooperation.

“As we continue to look into the absence of the county attorney, if we find problems requiring resolution, we hope to enter into an agreement,” he said. “If the county attorney decides not to cooperate, there’s always litigation.”

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