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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Increasing Respect For Sexual Assault Victims In Missoula

Missoula County Courthouse.
Cheri Trusler
Montana Public Radio
In 2013, the City of Missoula signed an agreement with the Justice Department to improve its policies and practices related to sexual assault prosecutions.

Tell me about your last sexual encounter, describe it in detail, and if you could, please recall it all in chronological order.

These questions are a part of an exercise Deputy Missoula County Attorney Suzy Boylan uses to help people understand a part of the uncomfortable conversation that happens between victims of sexual assault and lawyers and law enforcement.

"It's really instructive I think. Because think about what we are asking these people to do and tell us by virtue of the fact that we have a badge or a law degree."

Boylan spoke this week during a two-day multidisciplinary sex assault task force at Carroll College. Montana’s Attorney General’s Office invited attorneys, victim resource centers, and law enforcement to learn more about forming a community-wide response to sexual assault.

Part of the discussion dove into best practices for working with sexual assault victims. Boylan says she’s had to change the way she interviewed and listened to victims.

"I was trying to keep them on task and not let them stray, and actually they tell you now, no, let them go, let them go on their tangents. They are processing things right in front of us, and we have to, I think, be better at stepping back."

Boylan says many victims of abuse feel like they’ve lost a lot of control in their life, and the justice system shouldn’t take away more of that control. She says best practices for treating victims involves every part of the system: law enforcement, attorneys and advocates.

"Relationships between advocates and the criminal justice system have been fraught with stress and peril and judgment and difficulty since advocacy came into being. And in fact, the whole reason advocacy came into being was that victims were not being heard. The nice thing about having some institutional memory now is that I have seen some real significant changes happening in that way, and I can say at this point, that I can’t do my job without advocates," Boylan says.

On the law enforcement side, Missoula Police Detective Connie Brueckner also says best practices involve building relationships with other agencies that work with cases of sexual assault. And she says law enforcement needs to do a better job making victims feel comfortable within the system.

Over the past four years, the Missoula police department has been working to improve the interviewing environment for victims. That’s because the department was investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, which found gender bias in how it responded to sexual assault. In 2013, the City of Missoula signed an agreement with the Justice Department to improve its policies and practices.

"We’ve made a lot of changes in where we interview victims. I have to say, the Missoula police department did not provide the most victim-friendly environment for interviews, we all know that. It is the interview room we use for offenders. It's gray walls and a table and the most sterile thing ever. We’ve made some improvements in offer victims a 'soft' interview room. Now it's pleather chairs, and dried flowers, and patriotic colors. And considering the location of your interview with a victim, offering them a place that's comfortable to them is really important."

Brueckner says the she also uses much nicer rooms in crime victims advocate offices for interviews.

Brueckner says there are other aspects to working with victims and cases of sexual assault that are harder to fix:

"Societal myths and misconceptions. That's our jury, that's who we're talking to. And if our community doesn’t get it, we are going to struggle."

While the justice system addresses some its past failings in handling of sexual assault cases and victims, what is harder is changing the community's view on sex abuse. Brueckner says new science on how victims respond to abuse is influencing her work moving forward, but what she can’t control is the jury that may or may not be educated on what rape is, what it looks like, and the many ways that victims respond to assault.

Because of that, Brueckner has had to change the way she defines success in these kinds of cases.

"Honestly, if sitting down with a victim and having them feel like they were heard, that they feel like they were supported in the process, that somebody took their case seriously; I think that's success."

Brueckner says success is also increasing the number of reports of rape, which she says doesn’t mean more sexual assault is happening, just that more people are feeling comfortable reporting it.

She says by bringing more cases to trial, the community will become educated on the topic.

Many members at this week's task force meetings called for not only increased education, but for a change of Montana’s definition of rape. There are situations where prosecutors and advocates say rape can happen, but because of the language of the state law, it’s legally not rape.

An interim legislative committee is currently considering an overhaul on the state’s definition. That legislative committee will meet in June.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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