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DOJ Commends Missoula Police For Progress On Sexual Assault

Vanita Gupta, head of the U.S Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division speaks at a press conference in Missoula on May 11, 2015, as Missoula Mayor John Engen and Missoula Police Chief Mike Brady look on.
Edward O'Brien

The federal government says the Missoula police department has made tremendous progress in how it handles reports of sexual assault.

"In short, this community has come together to institute long-term, systemic change to protect and ensure the safety of generations to come," said Vanita Gupta, head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

"We are here to acknowledge that and celebrate it…the Missoula, MT police department has fully implemented its agreement with the Department of Justice to improve the Police Department’s response to sexual  assault."

Three years ago Justice  officials were more skeptical of Missoula’s ability to properly handle sex crime cases.

Amid reports of gender bias, the agency launched an investigation into allegations that Missoula police weren’t adequately investigating sexual assault reports. The city admitted no wrongdoing, but a year later agreed to improve how police conduct those investigations.

Montana’s U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter says Missoula has come a long way.

Because of the vision, the diligent work and unwavering resolve of your community leaders, Missoula is a different place. It is safer and it is a stronger community."

Among other measures, the Missoula Police Department has created a new Special Victims’ Unit specifically focused on sex crimes. It’s implemented specialized training for first responders and detectives working such cases. The department has also increased the number of detectives working sex assault cases and has developed an external review panel to review now-closed sex crime cases.

Missoula Police Chief Mike Brady says implementation of the required changes is already  paying off.

"MPD has had an increase of over 50-percent in reporting sexual assaults from 2012 to 2014. MPD has had a reduction of 16-percent in cases ending with victims discontinuing the investigation."

Advocates say an increase in sexual assault reports suggests victims are more confident in the Missoula Police Department’s ability to handle their complaints. However, the Justice Department has not noticed an increase in the prosecution of sexual assault complaints. It will document the number of prosecutions in the coming months.

County Attorney Kirsten Pabst, who handles prosecutions for Missoula police says her office is now working with city and county law enforcement on a daily basis and actively working with a sexual assault expert consultant.

"We’ve been working with the attorney general’s office on a several-times-a-week-basis as well. I’ve (also) been working with representatives of the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ. So, we’ve rolled up our sleeves and we’ve got a ways to go before our agreement’s complete, but we’re pretty actively engaged."

The County reached an agreement with DOJ about 18 months after the city.

The Missoula police department was the first of four Missoula agencies to settle an agreement with the Department of Justice. Besides the County Attorney’s office, the University of Montana and UM campus police are the other two agencies working to fulfill their agreements.

Justice officials say UM and the county attorney’ office are all making progress.

Even after all agreements are approved, The Justice Department says it will continue to keep tabs on Missoula’s sexual assault cases.

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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