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The Missoula Police Department has launched an internal review of sexual assault cases that occurred during the past two years.

Chief Mark Muir said he expects the review of about 50 cases will be complete in time for a public meeting Wednesday before a Missoula City Council committee that has concerns about the way the department handles sexual assaults.

In addition, two cases have been returned to detectives, Muir said.

"We found two cases we feel weren't adequately investigated," he said. "They were reassigned."

Missoula City Council members requested a report from the chief after two rape victims publicly complained about the way police handled their cases. The chief and Mayor John Engen said they believe those cases are exceptions, though.

But some members of the community, including nonprofit leaders advocating on behalf of women, say they want assurance that the police department is a safe place for people to report violent crimes.

WORD - Women's Opportunity and Resource Development - director Stacy Rye said she wants to know that city officials are taking even two concerns seriously and not considering them "just a public relations problem."

"There should be no reason that someone who's been a victim of one kind of crime should feel like they are not safe going into the police department versus any other kind of crime," said Rye, who previously served on the City Council.

She also said the police department is just one agency that victims of rape encounter, and YWCA of Missoula director Cindy Weese said she believes an annual review of the myriad organizations involved would lead to positive outcomes for all victims of violence, especially sexual assault.

"I really do believe that all of the stakeholders in that system are willing to do that," Weese said. "But it may take a body like the City Council to hold the system accountable for doing that."

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At the University of Montana, a separate internal investigation is under way 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 acknowledged that the university has a problem with sexual assaults, and pledged an aggressive response.

City Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken, who led the call for this week's meeting with the police chief, said she wants to understand the best practices in the field and make sure they are in place in Missoula.

She - along with councilors Caitlin Copple, Adam Hertz, Bob Jaffe, Marilyn Marler, Dave Strohmaier and Alex Taft - have asked Muir to discuss protocol for investigations, including those that take place on the UM campus; training that the department undertakes; statistics on conviction rates; and support for victims and grievance procedures.

"I really would like to hear too from him on his perspective on how things are working with the university, because he shared some things with me about that process that I didn't know. And I've worked in this field before," said Wolken, a lawyer who used to work with the Montana Legal Services Association and spent two years representing victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Councilman Jon Wilkins, who chairs the Public Safety and Health Committee, said the relationship between city police and the university is his biggest concern. He scheduled four hours for the meeting to make sure everyone has a chance to ask questions and offer answers.

"What I'd like, because of the privacy law, is better coordination between the university and our police department," said Wilkins, referring to a federal regulation that prevents places such as Curry Health Center from reporting sexual assaults to other campus departments or to law enforcement.

The forum with the police chief is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 25, in City Council Chambers, 140 W. Pine St.

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In August during a leadership conference, Chief Muir set a goal for Missoula police to improve the statistical analysis of violent crimes, including rape. Statutes are different and state laws don't always match with federal ones, so pulling data on those crimes is a challenge.

"When I went to get some statistics pertinent to everything that's going on in the community right now, I found out the statistics were all over the place," Muir said. "It was clear proof that my action plan needs to be put into action."

The internal review is one step toward that goal. Muir said the analysis is covering sexual assault cases from the past two years because the statute of limitations has not expired on them.

The last time the police did such a review was in 2005. Muir said captain of detectives Mike Colyer, who is conducting the analysis, will look at whether "clearance rates," or how cases were closed, have changed since then, among other data.

The police department counts some 14 investigators, and six are experts in crimes against individuals, which include rape, Muir said. If a victim comes to police during the work day, he or she likely will talk with a detective schooled in the field.

If a victim reports a rape after hours, a patrol officer with less experience may do the initial intake, Muir said.

"If we can avoid it, a patrol officer will not do an extensive interview with a victim," he said.

Police receive some training in sexual assault at the police academy. When they arrive at the Missoula Police Department, Muir said they undergo an intensive course, which includes the topics of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The chief found that the 10 most recently hired officers didn't receive the intensive training in those areas due to a program schedule change, so they will. He said none of those officers are involved in the cases recently in the public eye.

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In addition to the intensive course, the department conducts 9,000 hours of training each year, more than any other police department in Montana, Muir said. He confirmed the department does not mandate ongoing education in sexual assault for all officers, although the topics come up in the regular training.

At the upcoming meeting, Muir said he will present the council with some new ideas, such as requesting evaluation forms from victims of rape on the police's response. In the recent cases, Muir invited the victims to talk with him after getting a phone call from one victim's father, a police officer, and learning the women had grievances.

"I know that I can't just ask people to trust us. I'd love to," Muir said. "I know also that we can't ever expect that 100 percent of the community will be satisfied or even that 100 percent of the victims will be satisfied. That doesn't feel good, but it is certainly the reality."

He said he plans to echo the University of Montana's call for more education. Muir, who worked as a school resource officer and taught sexual assault prevention to middle-school children, said education must take place early and include a message directed to potential offenders in addition to victims.

"We can't wait until people get to college to tell them it's not OK to rape," Muir said.

FirstSTEP, Missoula's rape crisis center, performed 40 adult exams in 2007. Out of those rape exams, three, or 7 percent, resulted in convictions. The statistics reflect only people who went to FirstSTEP and not all victims in Missoula, said director Mary Pat Hansen, and she cautioned the community against drawing too many conclusions from such limited information.

Kelsen Young, executive director of the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, recommended a communitywide and even statewide system to track rape cases. While the data from FirstSTEP is limited in scope, she said it still raises questions.

"The fact that we had 40 individuals in Missoula who completed the forensic exam and only three of those ended up in guilty pleas I think is obviously very concerning," Young said.

Young said the community should ask why the conviction rate isn't higher, especially in a place such as Missoula, with resources and agencies working together. Do prosecutors choose not to prosecute? If not, why not? Do victims decline to move ahead with prosecution? If so, why? Do defense attorneys' tactics play into their decisions? And can advocates do anything about the way victims get "dragged through the mud" in court?

"This can't just be ‘The police are responsible,' or ‘The prosecutors are responsible,' " Young said.

Weese, with the YWCA, said the goal of "all of us in the system" should be to improve conviction rates every single year. She suggested an annual or biannual public reporting of outcomes by the police department and county attorney's office.

Currently, many victims who come to the YWCA choose not to report crimes because they don't believe they'll see justice, and they believe the process will re-victimize them, Weese said. And she said advocates don't press them to go to the authorities.

"We don't encourage people to report. We give them information about reporting, but we cannot say to them that if they report, they will see justice, that reporting would be a good thing for them," Weese said. "In our experience, it's something that hasn't been very rewarding for victims."

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

 

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