MISSOULA — The sheer volume of sexual assault reports to the Missoula Police Department – 350 over the course of four years – shocked City Councilman Dick Haines.
“If we had 300 reports of bank robberies, the you-know-what would hit the fan. People wouldn’t stand for that one minute,” Haines said.
Last Wednesday in a conference call, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the results of its yearlong investigation into the Missoula Police Department and its response to sexual assault reports. The federal review uncovered numerous shortcomings and led to an agreement between the DOJ and the city outlining steps police will take to improve responses to victims and boost public confidence in law enforcement.
Several members of the Missoula City Council listened in on the conference call, and five of them shared their responses to the report. The common themes were these:
• Councilors plan to request updates from police to monitor progress.
• They want to fund a “healthy relationships coordinator” that’s proposed in the fiscal 2014 city budget.
• And they are eager to hear results of the DOJ’s review of the Missoula County Attorney’s Office.
After a similar investigation, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division reached an agreement with the University of Montana for improving its responses to rape victims. The County Attorney’s Office also was a target of the federal examination, but Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg has refused to cooperate and disputes the authority of the federal government to examine his department.
“I think it takes all the entities in Missoula to come up with a program (of) how we’re going to deal with this,” said Councilman Jon Wilkins.
Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken said the County Attorney’s Office is the last piece of the puzzle: “We work in a system together. We want to make sure our part of the system is functioning as well as it can, but we need to know how the entire system is functioning.”
Haines, on the other hand, appreciated Van Valkenburg’s bluster, at least at first: “When he told the people from the Obama administration where to go and what to do, secretly, I cheered him on. But realistically, I don’t care if he is right. I think he has an obligation to have his unit looked at just like the city police did.”
The Justice Department outlined numerous findings in last week’s letter to Missoula Mayor John Engen, among them:
• Some investigative practices “significantly compromise the quality and effectiveness of (the Missoula Police Department’s) response to sexual assault, making it more difficult to uncover the truth when sexual assault allegations are made.”
• The investigative weaknesses were due at least in part to “stereotypes and misinformation about women and victims of sexual assault.”
• Detectives “all too often do not make sufficient efforts to obtain statements from suspects and witnesses quickly.” The delays undermine the integrity of the investigations by allowing suspects time to change or coordinate their stories.
• Detectives also commonly asked women whether they wanted to seek criminal prosecution, even before determining whether the case could be prosecuted. “As is widely understood, this practice misleads women into believing that they – and not the prosecutor – have control over whether the assailant is ultimately prosecuted.”
• The police department did not sufficiently communicate with the Missoula County Attorney’s Office and needed to take “more aggressive steps to ensure that it obtains necessary information about its sexual assault investigations from MCAO.”
“This is not to say that we did not find instances of MPD detectives demonstrating recognition of the unique needs of sexual assault victims,” reads the letter.
Some officers, for instance, take small but meaningful steps that build rapport with victims, “such as telling a woman to bring clothes when she goes to the hospital for the sexual assault forensic exam, so that she would have her own clothes, rather than hospital garb, to wear home.”
Councilman Ed Childers said more awareness by law enforcement officers is important, but he also sympathized with their difficult jobs. He said he fears occasional false reports make sexual assault crimes tough to enforce.
“I know that when one happens, it taints the entire pool,” Childers said.
Childers also said he is interested to see how the impasse with the County Attorney’s Office is resolved and figures the feds will either conclude their investigation or sue the county. He said he hopes positive outcomes last, too.
“The heightened emphasis on this, that or the other today is always difficult to carry through for a long period of time,” Childers said. “And so it needs to be revisited periodically, and hopefully that’s what will happen.”
Councilman Dave Strohmaier said he would like to call a council meeting to hear from the administration because he heard “mainly prepared statements” on the conference call. He wants to be able to ask his own questions after reviewing the findings and agreement in full.
Strohmaier also said he and other council members want to fund the “healthy relationships coordinator” even though it wasn’t high on the priority list in the mayor’s 2014 proposed budget.
“Certainly, there’s an interest on the part of council to make sure we invest in those programs that will make a difference,” Strohmaier said.
Councilman Jon Wilkins also wants to see the job funded. Before making any more suggestions himself, he would like to hear the mayor’s and city attorney’s analyses of the recommendations.
“I don’t think we’ve had long enough to digest the whole thing yet,” Wilkins said. “That’s the biggest thing.”
Already, one strategy is clear to Councilman Haines. The police chief offers regular updates to council members, and Haines wants future agendas to include more than introductions of new officers and budget matters.
“We should say, ‘How are you and your officers responding now to this agreement? To this push by the feds? Can you give us any feeling about what you’ve done or haven’t done?’ ” Haines said.
He said he has no doubt Police Chief Mark Muir will cooperate and had the highest praise for the department head and his officers: “I have the utmost trust in our police and sheriff’s department, and I believe in their integrity, and I think they’re doing a good job.”
However, he said several things bothered him in the findings. Years ago, Haines used to hear people refer to “men and girls,” and he remembers a social event where he overheard a woman say, “not men and girls, men and women.”
“Bingo. It hit me like a brick upside the head,” Haines said.
He fears the same “men and girls” view is evident in some of the findings in the investigation. Haines said he isn’t trying to make excuses for detectives, but he sees a gender barrier and police flummoxed as a result.
“Hells bells. Would you ask someone who had just been robbed if they want to prosecute?” Haines said. “... Why are you asking the victim if she wants to prosecute? You’re the officer. That’s your job, and get into it, and get with it.”
He also has a message for young women who want to hit the bars to party: “Stay the hell out of those places. I won’t even go in there, and I’m a male.”
Councilwoman Wolken agreed the City Council will play a role in monitoring improvements, and she too wants to fund the new healthy relationships coordinator position. She said the DOJ’s findings will only make the police department stronger, she looks forward to seeing best practices develop, and she welcomes any future audits.
“To me, this was never about PR. It was about, are we responding appropriately? And if not, if there are ways that we can improve, let’s do it. It’s about meaningful change,” Wolken said.