It’s very, very early in the Missoula County attorney’s race – the filing deadline is still months away – but already three qualified candidates have stepped forward to announce their intention to run.
Fortunately, it appears that all three of these candidates take sexual assault a lot more seriously than incumbent County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg.
In interviews with the Missoulian, Deputy County Attorney Jason Marks, former criminal prosecutor Kirsten Pabst and attorney Josh Van de Wetering have all described how they would run the County Attorney’s Office. Pabst promised to improve communication – with victims, with the public and with other law enforcement agencies. Van de Wetering vowed to make sexual assault and violence against women a top priority. And Marks pledged “a lot more dialogue with more victims and law enforcement.”
Van Valkenburg, on the other hand, seems to think rape reports are something to be investigated once other, presumably more important, responsibilities have been taken care of. It’s hard to know what else to make of the comments attributed to him in a recent review.
The review by Tom Tremblay, a law enforcement consultant, was performed at the request of local authorities and doesn’t focus on the County Attorney’s Office. It does, however, include a troubling statement from Van Valkenburg, who says deputy county attorneys are busy – very busy indeed. So busy, in fact, that they review sexual assault cases and make charging decisions whenever “they have spare time.” Or whenever police detectives follow up on a case.
The police department, in contrast, takes rape reports very seriously. While it, like the County Attorney’s Office, maintains that it has not been discriminatory, it has nonetheless worked hard at improving its response to sex assault victims and fully complied with federal investigators who spent last year evaluating the local response to rape reports.
Police Chief Mark Muir, in fact, has dedicated all his time over the past several months to making sure the U.S. Department of Justice recommendations are met before he retires at year’s end. Furthermore, he’s met with Van Valkenburg repeatedly to hammer out protocol for handling cases between the two departments.
That was one area of concern noted in Tremblay’s report, which pointed out that currently, the Missoula Police Department and County Attorney’s Office don’t have an adequate process in place to ensure cases are reviewed and charging decisions are made in a timely manner.
In recent months Van Valkenburg has become somewhat of a hero to some folks who admire his refusal to cooperate with federal investigators. But the recent review paints a picture of a county attorney who is not particularly cooperative with anyone.
The University of Montana and the Missoula Police Department are working hard to make improvements and communicate those changes to the public. Van Valkenburg may not be willing to do the same, but hopefully his replacement will.
After all, investigating sexual assault reports is the job, not the hobby, of police and prosecutors. The Missoula County Attorney has a big job to do – and rape is not a “spare time” crime.
EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen