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Missoula Gets Mixed Marks In Audit Of Sexual Assault Response

Missoula Police Department vehicle.
Cheri Trusler
Missoula Police Department vehicle.

A new audit shows Missoula is doing a better job of responding to reports of sexual assault. That same audit also says there's room for improvement.Missoula Mayor John Engen says that in an ideal world sexual assault would not exist. Engen also knows that's a lofty goal.

"So what's left for us is our response to what we have; how do we prevent and then how do we respond in the case of an assault. We've learned so much over the course of the last two years and I think we're going to continue to learn."

The city today released results of the "Missoula County Sexual Assault Safety and Accountability Audit". The audit was required under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Janet Stevens Donahue co-chaired the audit team. Donahue says they basically wanted to know two things: are victims adequately supported, and are offenders held accountable.

Donahue says the research identified a number of strengths. First, there are plenty of round-the-clock victim advocacy services in Missoula that are ready and willing to help.

"For victims both on campus and off campus as well as support for any sexual examination process all the way through to the time of a trial and including the trial."

The audit also finds plenty of cooperation between community partners and law enforcement agencies.
But sometimes a willingness to cooperate isn't enough. Audit team co-chair Mike Colyer is a Detective Captain with the Missoula police department. Colyer says the audit found Missoula's three law enforcement departments respond differently to sex assault investigations.

For instance, city officers have had federally mandated training that's not required of the Sheriff's department.

"That makes a difference in response. It is very important to everybody that when you call to report a sexual assault in any community, regardless of what uniform shows up you're going to get a similar service."

The audit team will recommend the city Police Department, County Sheriff's office and University of Montana Police update and merge their sexual assault policies.

Colyer adds local agencies are commonly frustrated by what they can't know about the victims they're trying to help.

"How can I get advocacy service for this victim when I can't tell the advocate who the victim is? Why is it such a struggle for law enforcement to get a class schedule when they're trying to find an offender? We can't get that without a subpoena. If we urgently need to speak to a student on campus and we want to know where he is, they can't give us that information unless we have a subpoena which causes a time delay."

Colyer says there's no easy fix for that complicated problem, but partners will continue to try to find solutions.

Jenny Daniel coordinates Missoula's criminal justice system response to relationship and sexual violence. Daniel enthusiastically supports the audit's process and conclusions. She also worries the public could grow weary of the topic.

"I do think that people are kind of sick of it and when people get sick of it they tune it out; but I've seen such a change in the past 10 years, and even in the past three, that I feel that we can do this."

This audit comes about a week and a half after the release of Jon Krakauer's latest book "Missoula:Rape and the Justice system in a College Town". The book details the stories of several women who've been raped and what they experienced in the legal system afterwards.

Mayor John Engen says victim's stories are important.

"And if Jon Krakauer's book reminds people of that, I think that's fine. My responsibility - our collective community responsibility - is to ensure those stories are never disregarded, those assault are always thoroughly investigated and that we're doing everything we can to make sure that justice is served."

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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