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Missoula Mayor John Engen, left, and Police Chief Mark Muir listen in early May 2012 during an announcement by the U.S. Department of Justice of an investigation into how Missoula handles reports of sexual assaults.

KURT WILSON/Missoulian

Mayor John Engen said Monday that he overreacted when he asked a Missoula police officer to apologize to the University of Montana for criticizing – as a private citizen, on a personal email account – UM’s handling of sexual assault cases.

“I make mistakes, some big, some small,” the mayor wrote in an email sent to all city employees, including police, Monday morning. “Not all of them appear in newspaper headlines, but one did on Sunday and I wanted to let you, the officers I count on to serve and protect our community, know that I’m sorry for that mistake.”

The officer, Geoff Curtis, wrote university administrators and boosters in February expressing his strongly worded concerns about the “spiraling PR mess” over allegations of sexual assault and gang rape involving UM students.

Within hours, UM Vice President Jim Foley contacted Engen to verify that Curtis was a police officer. Engen quickly responded that he was, and the next day Engen emailed UM President Royce Engstrom, Foley, Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir, Assistant Police Chief Mike Brady and Missoula Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Bender:

“In addition to an emailed apology to all addressees of the note you received from my police officer, Geoff Curtis, Officer Curtis will be requesting a moment of your time in the near future to offer an apology in person for the inappropriate message and its content,” the mayor wrote in the March 2 email.

“You also have my apologies. I am embarrassed, especially given all the progress I think we’ve made in the last week, by this note that suggests we’re not informed, measured or thoughtful in our approach to the complex issues of ending sexual assault in our community.”

The exchange was detailed in a Missoulian story on Sunday.

Engen wrote in his email Monday, sent at 10:47 a.m., that no formal disciplinary action was taken against Curtis.

“I think if I had it to do over, he and I would have had a conversation about the importance of thinking about those notes before you send them,” Engen said in a subsequent interview.

The mayor said he hadn’t talked Monday with Curtis, who was vacationing in California with his family.

“I had a very nice voicemail from him this afternoon,” the mayor said. “He and I agree that we both learned something.”

“I think it was an amazing, heartfelt apology,” Curtis said Monday. “I think he’s an amazing guy and I fully support him.”

***

During Monday night’s Missoula City Council meeting, a couple councilors raised the issue.

Councilman Dick Haines said he was pleased to see the mayor’s letter of apology to the police officer because Engen’s initial reaction to stymie Curtis “caused me quite a bit of personal angst.” But Haines had words for campus officials, who he said have been hiding behind Title IX instead of quickly sharing information about rape allegations with police, who can investigate.

“I think the University of Montana and hierarchy up there owes him (Curtis) an apology. He’s sworn to serve and protect. He was prohibited (from) doing that,” Haines said.

Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken said she agreed with Haines, and she pointed out a silver lining. In her view, one positive outcome can be an improved response from the city and University of Montana when it comes to rape.

“I do hope that out of all of this that we’re going to start to see a cultural change in the community and at the university at the administrative level, and I look forward to taking it to where it needs to go,” Wolken said.

As Engen explained to city employees in his email, “In the end, I apologized for something that wasn’t mine to apologize for and I asked someone to apologize for expressing his opinion outside of his work life. Now, months later, I regret both of those actions.”

The mayor said that at the time, he was worried that criticism from a city employee, even on his own time, would hurt communications between the city and UM. Engen said in an interview that when Curtis wrote his note, the city had recently had two “fairly intense meetings with the university about communication and mutual trust and information-sharing.”

Curtis’ email and the responses to it were among several emails received as part of a joint Freedom of Information Act request by the Missoulian and the Wall Street Journal, regarding a monthslong investigation by UM into alleged sexual assaults on and off campus.

The U.S. Department of Justice recently announced an investigation into how sexual assault cases are handled by UM and its campus police, as well as the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office.

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