Feds OK Montana college town’s police rape response changes

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The Missoula Police Department has made all of the changes required after federal investigators found the city and University of Montana failed to properly respond to reports of sexual assault, U.S. Department of Justice officials said Monday.

The investigation began in 2012 after 11 assaults involving university students were reported over 18 months, and it was expanded to include sexual assaults reported across the city over three years. Last month, “Into the Wild” author Jon Krakauer released a book titled “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” which details some of those rapes from the victims’ perspectives and documents their difficulties persuading authorities to believe their stories.

The investigation led to four agreements with the city police department, the University of Montana, campus police and the Missoula County attorney’s office to improve how they handle rape cases.

Gender bias was undermining Missoula law enforcement’s response to rapes, but changes made by police and the university as part of the agreements have turned that around, U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter said.

“Victims are heard. They are not blamed, and they are no longer stereotyped,” Cotter said.

The police department has fully implemented the terms of its agreement, making it the first of the four agencies to do so, Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said Monday at a Missoula news conference.

Among the changes, the police department has a new special victims’ unit, has trained its first responders and detectives, and has a new external review panel to look at how investigations are conducted.

The change the city and police have achieved as part of the agreement is “real and is making a very dramatic difference,” Gupta said.

Gupta said progress also has been made with the university, and officials there have rewritten the school’s sexual assault policies, conducted employee and student training and improved coordination, she said.

The agreement with the Missoula county attorney’s office was the last to be reached, and some work remains in implementing that deal, Gupta said.

Since the agreements, there has been a rise in the reports of sexual assault in Missoula, which officials attributed to victims having more confidence in the police. But the Justice Department has not found a corresponding increased rate in prosecutions, Gupta said.

County Attorney Kirsten Pabst said it is too early to mark any significant trends in the rate of prosecutions, but her office has made changes.

Four prosecutors and a supervisor are handling rape cases — previously there was one prosecutor — and the office has named a coordinator to work with victims, advocates and law enforcement, she said.

“We have made a huge shift from being process-driven to being victim-centered,” Pabst said. “I can say definitely, yes, we have seen some improvements.”

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