DOJ: Missoula police weaknesses stem from stereotypes about sexual assault victims

2013-05-16T06:05:00Z 2014-10-03T14:28:37Z DOJ: Missoula police weaknesses stem from stereotypes about sexual assault victims

One woman who reported a gang rape to the Missoula Police Department was told it was “probably just a drunken night and a mistake.”

In another case, a detective characterized a reported rape – during which the woman repeatedly said “no” – as “mostly voluntary fueled by alcohol.” Other women reporting rapes were asked about their sexual histories.

All of which contributed to the finding announced Wednesday by the U.S. Justice Department that Missoula police practices discouraged rape victims from cooperating with law enforcement.

“MPD’s investigations are marked by practices that significantly compromise the effectiveness of MPD’s response to sexual assault and contribute to the under-enforcement of sexual assault laws in Missoula,” according to a letter from the DOJ to Missoula Mayor John Engen.

The mayor said Wednesday that “while we may not necessarily agree with all the allegations, we’re ready to move forward.”

In announcing that the police department has agreed to reform the way it handles reports of sexual assault, the Justice Department commended Missoula for starting those reforms even before the DOJ began an investigation a year ago.

That investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division also included an examination of how the University of Montana police and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office handle sexual assault cases. Last week, DOJ announced a similar agreement with the University of Montana.

Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg has refused to cooperate with federal investigators, saying his office did nothing wrong and that the feds have no authority for their action.

Wednesday’s announcement came in the form of a conference call that included Roy L. Austin Jr., deputy assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division; Michael Cotter, U.S. attorney for Montana; Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir; and Engen.

“Because of this agreement, all community citizens, men and women, will be safer,” said Cotter.

As he did last week when UM’s agreement was announced, Cotter said the Missoula Police Department pact serves as a national model for other agencies struggling with similar issues.

Indeed, added Austin, “the concerns we raise in our letter are not unique to Missoula. … Far more significant are the steps the city and police department of Missoula have agreed to take to improve its response.” (See related story.)


Justice Department investigators spent 10 days in Missoula over the past year, and conducted more interviews by telephone. They interviewed Muir and nine police detectives and officers, representatives of 11 community and UM groups representing women and sexual assault victims, and more than 30 women – or their representatives – who reported being sexually assaulted.

They also reviewed police procedures and training materials, court records and the case files for more than 350 reports of sexual assault to the police department between January 2008 and May 2012.

In addition to practices that discourage women from reporting sex crimes, “our investigation further showed that there is no legitimate law enforcement or other reason for these inadequacies,” according to the DOJ letter.

“Rather, these investigative weaknesses appear due, at least in part, to stereotypes and misinformation about women and victims of sexual assault.”

The fact that the problems disproportionately affect women amounts to a violation of the Safe Streets Act, and the police department’s response amounts to discrimination that violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, according to the DOJ.

However, as part of the agreement, the city and the police department “expressly deny any claim of constitutional or statutory violations.”


The Justice Department letter, signed by Cotter and Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, detailed some of the problems found during the investigation. Among them:

• A UM student who reported being assaulted at a fraternity house told police she’d repeatedly said “no” and pushed at her assailant, who was more than twice her size. But the detective’s case report termed the incident “mostly voluntary fueled by alcohol,” and left out statements about her resistance.

• Women reporting sexual assault were commonly asked whether they wished to prosecute, leading them to believe it was up to them, rather than the County Attorney’s Office, whether to take such action. “That is not the kind of question that is asked of people in most situations where they’re the victim of a crime,” Austin said Wednesday.

• The police department required victims and witnesses to be interviewed at the police station, a “practice more appropriate for an interrogation of a suspect than an interview of a crime victim.” Women typically were interviewed without an advocate, even though Montana law gives sexual assault victims the right to have an advocate with them.

• Police relied on women’s sexual histories in evaluating reports of sexual assault. “That reliance in turn reflects assumptions and stereotypes about women, such as assumptions that women who are sexually active are less likely to be legitimate victims of sexual assault.”

• The police “routinely failed to timely share information about sexual assault involving UM students with either university officials or with OPS (UM’s Office of Public Safety).” Although in one case the police told the football coach about a report of sexual assault by student athletes, UM officials didn’t learn about the allegations until nearly a year later.

The letter also mentioned communication problems with the County Attorney’s Office regarding its decisions on whether to prosecute sexual assault cases.

Police administrators “acknowledged that detectives are ‘frustrated’ with MCAO’s ‘lack of follow-up and prosecution’ in cases of sexual assault.”

And, the County Attorney’s Office routinely provides no information to police about why it declines to prosecute some sexual assault cases, according to the letter.

Austin said Wednesday that his office has been in touch with the County Attorney’s Office, but with no resolution to the lack of cooperation.

“As we continue to look into the absence of the county attorney, if we find problems requiring resolution, we hope to enter into an agreement,” he said. “If the county attorney decides not to cooperate, there’s always litigation.”

Editor Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5250 or at

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(24) Comments

  1. Larry Lewis
    Report Abuse
    Larry Lewis - May 17, 2013 8:36 pm
    Where is the accountability at the police department? If the DOJ report is true then Mayor Engen should be dressing down his Chief of police. If the report is not true, the mayor should defend his officers. Instead we get the jolly 'ol Mayor who has no problem spending taxpayer money for the Fed to babysit his police department for two years. Wake up Missoula!
  2. us citizen
    Report Abuse
    us citizen - May 17, 2013 9:13 am
    problem solved easy shut down the university everything you read about any more has something to do with the university
  3. sofaking tired of the GOP
    Report Abuse
    sofaking tired of the GOP - May 17, 2013 1:06 am
    Oh please, nice partisan rant, this has nothing to do with Holder. Yes Holder is a weasel and needs to go but has nothing to do with this.
  4. Minuteman
    Report Abuse
    Minuteman - May 16, 2013 5:51 pm
    quite disturbing that the person wearing the badge uses their own prejudicial thinking in handling any sort of assualt complaint. their job description does not include "judge and jury". it should include, vigorously investigating the complaint to determine if it actually has merit. and that can take time and an open mind. It seems apparent the police could use some training and the community and the department would benefit. Procedures should be established and adhered to in every sexual assault reported. It should never be left to the discretion of the officer taking the complaint and his personal opinions should be kept to himself. Respect the citizens and maybe gain the respect of the citizens.
  5. Bob
    Report Abuse
    Bob - May 16, 2013 4:21 pm
    Some oversight may be needed. But im not sure the DOJ, 2nd only to the defense department in internal sexual assaults is the one to do it
  6. jacksommersby88
    Report Abuse
    jacksommersby88 - May 16, 2013 3:55 pm
    Really, Walter? So you know every city police department in this country to make that kind (baseless, generalized) statement? That's okay -- I'm sure if it were UM football players rather than rape victims being "stereotyped" by the Missoula police department, you'd be singing a totally different (and hypocritical) tune.
  7. thisplacestinks
    Report Abuse
    thisplacestinks - May 16, 2013 1:39 pm
    The officers seem to be willing to not report what the woman claims. That has nothing to do with presuming guilt. That is an officer not doing his job. I hope Missoula PD gets sued over that one. Investigating a woman's sexual history is what the Public Defender is supposed to do, not the cops. And your claim of 1-2% is based on what? Oh, right, you are just making up numbers. Good argument. And innocent until proven guilty is for the courts, not the cops. Cops are supposed to treat every suspect like they are guilty and investigate accordingly. The intersting question is why you are so adamant in defending a police force that has clearly fallen short.
  8. dave ajou
    Report Abuse
    dave ajou - May 16, 2013 11:21 am
    @bones, be as obtuse as you want, if you don't think compromised credibility is relevant, it's your problem, not mine.
  9. GaryTinkSanders
    Report Abuse
    GaryTinkSanders - May 16, 2013 10:53 am
    I would think every voting woman in the County would vote him out of office next year.
  10. Bones
    Report Abuse
    Bones - May 16, 2013 10:51 am
    "A corrupt governmental agency demanding their dictates be followed at a local level.."

    Where did this happen? What are the dictates?

    "When another local agency told them to pound sand, they slunk back where they belonged."

    I think you made that up too. I see no evidence of a slinky retreat.

    Whether they engaged in unconstitutional investigations into a news organization has absolutely no bearing on the legitimacy or efficacy of this investigation.
  11. dave ajou
    Report Abuse
    dave ajou - May 16, 2013 10:41 am
    @Alan below. I'm fully aware of the need for the investigating officer to not have a preconceived opinion of the accuser, my point is that the there should also not be a preconceived notion of guilt or innocence on the accused whether that is by an investigator who can clearly skew a report one way or another, or the charging agency. Which makes this particularly ironic, in that the county attorney's office also has to be held accountable, but did not participate with the DOJ investigation.
  12. Bones
    Report Abuse
    Bones - May 16, 2013 10:41 am
    Well, what you don't do is assume she was lying or drunk and willing.
  13. Alan Johnson
    Report Abuse
    Alan Johnson - May 16, 2013 9:52 am
    The issue at the investigation level is not "guilty until proven innocent opr any such thing. An investigation officer has the duty to fully investigate the facts of any reported crime. He can't do this properly if he (or she) form an opinion on the accuser prior to completing the investigation, as was done in these example. m The investigator doesn't decide who is guilty or not guilty. The investigation is forwarded to the county attorney's office and a deputy attorney, or even the County attorney himself, decides whether there is sufficient evidence to charge a crime.

    The policy change is not to let pre-conceived opinions, affect the investigation. The investigator should be an objective gatherer of all relevant information. That's not special treatment. That just good police work.
  14. Jon_w
    Report Abuse
    Jon_w - May 16, 2013 9:12 am
    While our PD has dropped the ball on sexual assualts on women, the bigger problem is the nut case who is our elected county attorney. When van valkenburg worked as a deputy county attorney in that office, long before he first got elected as county attorney, i was never impressed with him, his then boss, current district court judge, Dusty Dechamps was a heck of a lot better and not anywhere as narrow and closed minded as the current County Attorney. Van-valkenburg has no desire to prosecute sex cases. he must feel that women do not deserve to have those cases prosecuted, possibly because he feels they "lack" importance. Which shows how little our County Attorney carews about women and how little he respects America and our laws. .
  15. thepalehunter
    Report Abuse
    thepalehunter - May 16, 2013 9:11 am
    "There is nothing wrong with the Missoula Police"

    I'd laugh if it weren't so sad.
  16. dave ajou
    Report Abuse
    dave ajou - May 16, 2013 9:01 am
    A corrupt governmental agency demanding their dictates be followed at a local level, when their own house is clearly in shambles isn't relevant ? When another local agency told them to pound sand, they slunk back where they belonged. It doesn't get any more relevant than that.
  17. dave ajou
    Report Abuse
    dave ajou - May 16, 2013 8:53 am
    In the specific instances cited, the attitude of the officers is unacceptable.If the change in protocol means accepting a charge as guilty until proven otherwise, then justice is still not served. I don't think that many departments in the US could have 350 cases reviewed and not find almost exactly the same results, 1-2% of the cases at the very most. I don't see that as constituting very, very bad overall.
  18. walter12
    Report Abuse
    walter12 - May 16, 2013 6:47 am
    There is nothing wrong with the Missoula Police, they are better than many in our country. y. As for the DOJ of today under this Holder creature, you must be insane to trust them. Holder is as corrupt as a three dollar bill. He is liar and a simple flunky for this Obama character, and nothing more.
  19. Been There
    Report Abuse
    Been There - May 16, 2013 6:39 am
    Women aren't the only victims of sterotypes by the Missoula community. When I came to Missoula to attend UM, my daughter was a sophomore at Hellgate High School. On her first day of school, she ran into a girl from Great Falls that she had gone to school with for many years. My daughter was also a band student. The band kids told her she could be friends with them or her long-time friend from Great Falls who was Native American., but not both. She chose her friend. Attitudes need to change so that ALL residents of the Missoula community feel welcome, accepted and safel I applaud the DOJ's investigation of women and sexual assault. It is, at least, a place to begin a dialogue about attitudinal changes towards anyone who is different from the majority of the mostly white people who live there.
  20. Bones
    Report Abuse
    Bones - May 15, 2013 11:05 pm
    Relevant? No.
  21. Pistol
    Report Abuse
    Pistol - May 15, 2013 7:06 pm
  22. thepalehunter
    Report Abuse
    thepalehunter - May 15, 2013 6:53 pm
    Because the Missoula PD are really, really bad at handling sexual assaults is why, Dave.
  23. Roger
    Report Abuse
    Roger - May 15, 2013 2:11 pm
    In a "he said, she said" situation, how can law enforcement do anything to the male she is accusing, unless there's physical evidence that force was used, of course?
  24. dave ajou
    Report Abuse
    dave ajou - May 15, 2013 10:38 am
    As his Justice Department faces bipartisan outrage for searching phone records of AP reporters and editors, Attorney Gen. Eric Holder says he is not sure how many times such information has been seized by government investigators in the four years he's led Justice.

    During an interview with NPR's Carrie Johnson on Tuesday, Holder was asked how often his department has obtained such records of journalists' work.

    "I'm not sure how many of those cases ... I have actually signed off on," Holder said. "I take them very seriously. I know that I have refused to sign a few [and] pushed a few back for modifications."

    , Carrie added that Holder declined to say whether there will be a review of the Justice Department's policy on searches of reporters' records.

    Tuesday, NPR and other media organizations joined in . In it, the news outlets ask that the Justice Department:

    — "Immediately return the telephone toll records obtained and destroy all copies, as requested by The Associated Press."

    — "Announce whether it has served any other pending news media-related subpoenas that have not yet been disclosed."
    Missoula is genuflecting to these thugs why exactly ?
Missoulian Civil Dialogue Policy

Civil Dialogue Policy for Commenting on

We provide this community forum for readers to exchange ideas and opinions on the news of the day. Passionate views, pointed criticism and critical thinking are welcome. Comments can only be submitted by registered users. By posting comments on our site, you are agreeing to the following terms:

Commentary and photos submitted to the Missoulian ( may be published or distributed in print, electronically or other forms. Opinions expressed in's comments reflect the opinions of the author, and are not necessarily the opinions of the Missoulian or its parent company. See the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy for more information.

Our guidelines prohibit the solicitation of products or services, the impersonation of another site user, threatening or harassing postings and the use of vulgar, abusive, obscene or sexually oriented language, defamatory or illegal material. You may not post content that degrades others on the basis of gender, race, class, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability or other classification. It's fine to criticize ideas, but ad hominem attacks on other site users are prohibited. Users who violate those standards may lose their privileges on

You may not post copyrighted material from another publication. (Link to it instead, using a headline or very brief excerpt.)

No short policy such as this can spell out all possible instances of material or behavior that we might deem to be a violation of our publishing standards, and we reserve the right to remove any material posted to the site.

Add Comment
You must Login to comment.

Click here to get an account it's free and quick