Missoula Police Department Chief Mark Muir said police should do a better job communicating with sexual assault victims, and Wednesday in a public forum, he apologized to one woman who identified herself as a rape victim.

"You have my apologies with respect to us leaving you feeling less than satisfied," Muir said.

The chief made his comments to a Missoula City Council committee in front of a full house, and his presentation about how the department handles sexual assaults lasted more than an hour. Several councilors had requested a public audience with Muir after a couple of rape victims complained about the way police treated them.

Kerry Barrett identified herself at the microphone as one of the women who had shared grievances with the Missoula Police Department. On Wednesday, she made a public call for improvements in that department and the Missoula County Attorney's Office.

"I've heard his apology before, and I appreciate it, but I'm not looking for ‘I'm sorry,' " Barrett said.

An estimated 50 people sat in the audience, and only a handful spoke. Councilors didn't take formal action at the meeting, but Councilman Mike O'Herron offered his profuse appreciation to Barrett for taking a public stand.

"I'm particularly and profoundly impressed and in deep admiration for Ms. Barrett to stand up to the mic today. It's made my week," O'Herron said. "Your courage and your fortitude and wherewithal to step up to that mic ... it's affected me, and I appreciate you doing that. Way to go."

***

The recent public complaints from rape victims led the police to launch an internal investigation into the sexual assault cases filed the last two years. Since December, a separate internal investigation has been under way at the University of Montana in the wake of several rape allegations on and off campus.

Last week, a UM forum with President Royce Engstrom about that investigation drew a standing-room-only crowd. Engstrom discussed the matter again Wednesday in an address to the campus community. (See related story).

As part of the report to councilors, Chief Muir shared outcomes of the review of 72 cases as well as recommendations for moving forward. Here are some figures he presented:

• Two cases were reopened for further investigation.

• Ten cases are still pending hearings or trials, Muir said: "The system doesn't necessarily always work quickly because a good number of these cases go back into 2010, and that's a long time for a victim to be out there ... not knowing what will happen to her offender."

• Fifteen of the 63 closed cases, or 23 percent, were closed by arrest, "up significantly from 15 percent in 2004."

•  Of those cases where arrests took place and prosecution is under way, he counted four convictions, including one in federal court; one case was deferred for prosecution.

•  Just one of the 63 was deemed "unfounded." "That is an amazing change, for in 2004, 15 percent of the cases were cleared by being deemed as unfounded."

•  The data Muir shared show 22 percent of the cases, or 14 out of 63, were declined by the prosecutor. Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg said his office tracks the reasons those cases didn't move forward, but he cannot share the information with the public: "In most instances, I would not be able to discuss with you the particular reasons in which prosecution was declined because that information is confidential criminal justice information."

•  Nine cases are active; in 15 cases, complainants declined to move ahead; and seven cases are inactive pending more information.

Of all those cases, Muir pointed to one consistent factor: "Our department without fail has referred each and every victim who reported to us to FirstSTEP or a local hospital for a clinical exam, a forensic exam, in order to obtain evidence that might be used against their offenders."

***

Going forward, Muir pledged that better communication will play a significant role in the way police deal with victims.

"We want to share a message with our officers that the victim needs to be a priority," Muir said.

To that end, the chief said the most significant area in training for the department in the immediate future will be interpersonal communication and "the human component."

"We will find ways to challenge our officers to become better communicators and to learn to be more accomplished at responding rather than reacting to confrontation as they face it in the course of their investigations," Muir said.

The chief acknowledged difficulties in that regard, especially when officers interview victims. Muir said it's easy for police to become callous in the way they ask questions because they're trying to keep the matter from becoming personal.

He said it's also easy for investigators to become overly comfortable because of their vast experience, and they may ask questions in such detail that victims are affected.

"Interviewing victims is very, very difficult," Muir said.

So he will stress the golden rule and teach officers to treat people being interrogated the same way they would want to be treated in the very same circumstances.

Muir also said the department will put into place a "better policy with respect to sexual assault" no later than March 15. The policy isn't further defining sexual assault procedures, but Muir said it is defining the ways the department communicates to members of its police force and to the community the "expectation for victim prioritization."

***

Only a few members of the public spoke at the meeting.

Barrett, who said she was a victim of sexual assault in Missoula in September, believes one reason victims don't come forward is prosecutors don't believe cases can be proven.

"I'm just left wondering if the re-victimization through the investigative process is even worth it for victims if conviction rates are so low, and if detectives go in knowing they probably won't get a conviction," she said.

She said she agreed with Muir's call for an improvement in communication with victims: "I really appreciate that and I must agree. When I made my report right after my sexual assault, I was just told my report number and told to pick it up in a few days."

She said not until a couple days later did a detective contact her about some of the other services and advocates who help rape victims. She wants police to provide that information right off the bat.

Barrett also questioned whether police really do conduct as many interviews as Muir suggested during the course of an investigation. In her case, she said no one contacted a witness in the apartment or other people she had talked with, and she hopes that's not a pattern.

"It just seems some investigations aren't thorough," Barrett said.

Councilman Jon Wilkins, who chaired the Public Safety and Health Committee meeting, said he knows the police department "does a great job." But he offered a couple of suggestions, including sharing advocacy information with victims right away.

He also said investigators who constantly have to look into violent crimes may get hardened against them, and he recommended sensitivity training: "When that person first comes into a detective's office, the first thing is sensitivity, and how you come across to that person in the first few seconds."

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

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