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DOJ: Missoula's Improvements In Handling Sexual Assaults 'A Model That Should Be Copied'

UM President Royce Engstrom speaks about UM's handling of sexual assaults at a July 10 press conference in Missoula, MT.
Eric Whitney - MTPR
UM President Royce Engstrom speaks about UM's handling of sexual assaults at a July 10 press conference in Missoula, MT.

The University of Montana Police Department has met federal requirements to improve its response to reports of sexual assault on campus.

The University agreed to the requirements two years ago, following a 2012 investigation into reports of sexual assaults at the school by the U.S. Departments of Justice, and Education.

U.S. Attorney for Montana Michael Cotter spoke at a press conference on campus today.

"The broad set of fundamental reforms that has been implemented over the last three years has dramatically improved the ability of the University of Montana, and Missoula more broadly, to protect victims of sexual assault."

The reforms included setting up an external review panel to scrutinize closed sexual assault cases for indications of comprehensiveness and gender bias. They also include revising the campus police department’s standard procedures for responding to sexual assault calls, and implementing what are known as "victim-centered" investigations.

"Our officers accumulated about a thousand hours of training, just in sexual assault investigations," said UM Police Chief Marty Ludemann. "That averages to about 79 hours per officer."

University of Montana President Royce Engstrom said the new police protocols and other measures on campus mean there’s now a big difference in how women who report a sexual assault at the university are treated.

"Fundamentally the difference is a much more knowledgeable, much more caring environment, set of people. At it’s core I think that’s what is different," Engstrom said. "Our reporting processes now are so much clearer than they were before. There admittedly was confusion in terms of how does a woman report, how does a woman get confidential care, what's the difference between the two. I believe we have worked very hard to clarify that, so now a victim of sexual assault knows how to report, and knows that there's going to be a response. Our deepest hope from all of this is that we have 100 percent reporting of sexual assault incidents, combined with a decrease in the actual number if incidents of sexual assault. I think though, that the structure we have put in place at the University, what has been put in place at the city and in the county attorney's office; our deepest hope is that give confidence to victims of sexual assault, that they will be listened to, will be cared for and there will be consequences of committing sexual assault."

The Department of Justice’s announcement that University Police have met all of their requirements to improve response to sexual assault comes two months after Missoula city police were also given the thumbs-up by Justice. In May the Department said that Missoula police had met all of the requirements of a similar agreement.

"The reforms called for an integrated response to sexual assault," explained U.S. Attorney for Montana Michael Cotter. "The collaborative response of the University and the city police departments has become the model for all towns and colleges, a model that should be copied."

The Justice Department praised Missoula and the University for doing, "the difficult work together to create change.”

Missoula Mayor John Engen:

"It’s very difficult to read a report that suggests there’s been a pattern and practice of discrimination against a class of citizen in your community. It's very difficult to acknowledge that you can do better, and haven't - and that's just my part of it. That you don't have complete control over all of this. That personalities are at play. That you have to overcome jurisdictional boundaries. That you have some complex bureaucratic hurdles. That you have to manage hurt feelings in some cases, and egos. All that's tough. There's a point at which you just have to recognize that you got a problem, and that's tough. But once you get there you start figuring out ways to fix it. The really gratifying part of this, in addition to knowing that you're helping people, is seeing the best parts of the people with whom we work manifest themselves through these efforts."

University officials at the press conference and U.S. Attorney Cotter said they’re committed to sustaining the reforms they’ve signed off on. The Justice Department noted that, through  a separate agreement, the University has committed to conduct annual assessments of the reforms’ effectiveness, and to consider any recommendations from community members, parents and law enforcement.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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