MISSOULA — Missoula Police Department Chief Mark Muir said police should do a better job communicating with sexual-assault victims, and Wednesday in a public forum, he apologized to one woman who identified herself as a rape victim.
“You have my apologies with respect to us leaving you feeling less than satisfied,” Muir said.
The chief made his comments to a Missoula City Council committee in front of a full house, and his presentation about how the department handles sexual assaults lasted more than an hour. Several council members had requested a public audience with Muir after a couple of rape victims complained about the way police treated them.
Kerry Barrett identified herself at the microphone as one of the women who had shared grievances with the Missoula Police Department. On Wednesday, she made a public call for improvements in that department and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office.
“I’ve heard his apology before, and I appreciate it, but I’m not looking for ‘I’m sorry,’” Barrett said.
An estimated 50 people sat in the audience, and only a handful spoke. Council members didn’t take formal action at the meeting, but Councilman Mike O’Herron offered his profuse appreciation to Barrett for taking a public stand.
“I’m particularly and profoundly impressed and in deep admiration for Ms. Barrett to stand up to the mic today. It’s made my week,” O’Herron said. “Your courage and your fortitude and wherewithal to step up to that mic ... it’s affected me, and I appreciate you doing that. Way to go.”
The recent public complaints from rape victims led the police to launch an internal investigation into the sexual-assault cases filed in the past two years. Since December, a separate internal investigation has been under way at the University of Montana in the wake of several rape allegations on and off campus.
Last week, a UM forum with President Royce Engstrom about that investigation drew a standing-room-only crowd. Engstrom discussed the matter again Wednesday in an address to the campus community.
Muir pledged that better communication will play a significant role in the way police deal with victims.
“We want to share a message with our officers that the victim needs to be a priority,” Muir said.
To that end, the chief said the most significant area in training for the department in the immediate future will be interpersonal communication and “the human component.”
“We will find ways to challenge our officers to become better communicators and to learn to be more accomplished at responding rather than reacting to confrontation as they face it in the course of their investigations,” Muir said.
The chief acknowledged difficulties in that regard, especially when officers interview victims. Muir said it’s easy for police to become callous in the way they ask questions because they’re trying to keep the matter from becoming personal.
He said it’s also easy for investigators to become overly comfortable because of their vast experience, and they may ask questions in such detail that victims are affected.
“Interviewing victims is very, very difficult,” Muir said.
So he will stress the golden rule and teach officers to treat people being interrogated the same way they would want to be treated in the very same circumstances.
Muir also said the department will put into place a “better policy with respect to sexual assault” no later than March 15. The policy isn’t further defining sexual-assault procedures, but Muir said it is defining the ways the department communicates to members of its police force and to the community the “expectation for victim prioritization.”