Mayor John Engen told CNN that Missoula is “about average” for its number of sexual assaults.
Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir said at a news conference that “I frankly would be shocked to learn of discriminatory practices by our department.”
And Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg took a far more emphatic tack at that same news conference, denying any wrongdoing by his department.
All of those statements came in response to last week’s announcement that the U.S. Department of Justice is taking the unprecedented step of investigating how rape cases are handled by Missoula police, the county attorney’s office and the University of Montana.
All of those responses are – at best – less than ideal, according to Larry Smith.
Smith heads the Institute for Crisis Management in Louisville, Ky., a consulting firm that helps corporations, communities and universities that find themselves in the worst kind of national spotlight.
“Entire Montana town under investigation for 80 alleged rapes,” screamed the headline (its overline, in red – “Horrible”) on Jezebel, Gawker’s female-focused website. “What the hell is going on in Missoula, Montana?” the post began.
It doesn’t get much more unfavorable than that.
But there’s an easy way to handle it, Smith said.
“Take charge,” he advised. “You’re as outraged as anybody else that women under any circumstances would be taken advantage of by anyone, anywhere. … The people who have the power and who have the authority have to get up and say over and over again, ‘We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.’ ”
Only problem is, leaders usually wait far too long to take that stance, and then do far too little, he said.
While University of Montana president Royce Engstrom quickly hired an investigator to review sexual assaults involving students, and repeatedly decried the problem, UM remains “not very transparent, not very forthcoming,” Smith said.
Then there’s the much-ballyhooed campaign by UM, the police department, the county attorney’s office and others to urge sexual assault victims to call 9-1-1.
“It’s better than nothing,” Smith said. “It’s a step in the right direction. But it’s not enough. It doesn’t get them off the hook.”
Particularly since the Missoula911.com campaign didn’t launch until:
A) two and a half months after the university hired former Montana Supreme Court Justice Diane Barz to review sexual assault allegations
B) six weeks after Engstrom began several forums around town and on campus to talk about the problem of sexual assault, and wrote an editorial on how women can avoid becoming victims (but that didn’t urge men not to rape)
C) and two weeks after UM Dean of Students Charles Couture notified a Saudi exchange student he’d been accused of rape, which gave him enough time to flee the country before his alleged victim filed a police report.
“That’s so dumb,” Smith said of the episode involving the Saudi student. “It’s hard to imagine that an adult, particularly one supposed to be responsible for training our young people, would think that was an appropriate thing to do or even say. It just blows my mind.”
More to the point, he said, “the people who need to react to those things just have to react faster. Many don’t. Penn State’s a great example. They were several years slow in reacting.”
Last fall, it was widely reported that former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had been accused of sexually assaulting young boys over a period of years. Famed football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier were fired as a result – just a little over a month before UM’s own sexual assault scandal broke.
UM football players are among those accused in some of the sexual assaults in Missoula. In March, Engstrom fired football coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O’Day, saying only that a change was needed.
Smith said he’s drawn a number of clients over the years from higher education.
“One of the biggest problems consistently is that colleges and universities do everything in the world to cover up sex crimes on their campuses,” he said.
Even with recently clarified federal laws on the subject, “it amazes me the ways universities can find ways to work around them and ignore them,” he said. “Why the administrators of those schools still have jobs amazes me.”
Still, Engstrom, Engen and Muir pledged their complete support at last week’s news conference announcing the Justice Department investigation.
Engen said that both he and Muir had “no sense that we have failed to do our jobs … we can be proven wrong. If there are things we aren’t doing right, we’re absolutely committed to doing them right.”
“We understand that we all have room for improvement and we all have room to learn,” Engstrom said.
And Muir said the police department could better serve the city as a result of any improvements.
“If they say, ‘We weren’t aware, we didn’t know and now we do,’ then they need to make sure to do all they can to make sure the problem gets solved,” Smith said. “If they do it honestly and mean what they say, it will go away faster and leave far less after-effects.”
Finally, he said, ditch the tactic of pointing out – no matter how accurately – that Missoula is no worse than anywhere else when it comes to sexual assault.
“We don’t want to be like everyone else on this one,” he said.
Missoulian reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, email@example.com, or @CopsAndCourts on Twitter.