U.S. Department of Justice officials heaped praise upon the Missoula Police Department on Monday and deemed its approach to rape victims a model for other communities to follow.
At a morning news conference, U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana Mike Cotter said Missoula police have made "substantial and significant" improvements in handling sexual assault cases, and the changes will last.
Cotter also lauded the University of Montana's progress in dealing with victims of sexual assault and for working to ensure permanent reform on campus and in the larger community.
"Today, under new protocols, victims are heard, they are not blamed, and they are no longer stereotyped," Cotter said.
In 2012, the federal agency launched an unprecedented investigation into allegations of gender bias in the police department, UM, campus police and the Missoula County Attorney's Office. The Department of Justice found that "gender bias was undermining" law enforcement's response to sexual assault.
In his remarks, Cotter praised city police and UM for immediately agreeing to a "broad set of fundamental changes." He said reforms from the May 2013 agreements have made police more "accountable, transparent and credible."
"Today, the Missoula Police Department is stronger and trusted. Indeed, Missoula is a model for every town in this nation to emulate," Cotter said.
The Department of Justice also is monitoring the County Attorney's Office. However, former County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg disputed the federal agency's authority to investigate, so the DOJ is overseeing reforms in the prosecutor's office via a later agreement with the Montana Attorney General's Office.
At the news conference, Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst sat with the audience in the back of the room and was not part of the presentation. In the past, she has lauded the changes in her department as well, including additional training and the creation of a special victims' unit.
"Our investigation and prosecution standards needed to be improved. That has been done," Pabst said at a news conference last month, noting her commitment to continue improvements. "Ask the Montana Attorney General’s Office. Ask the U.S. Department of Justice."
On Monday, federal officials made only brief mentions of the County Attorney's Office, which entered into a contract with the AG one year ago.
However, at the news event and at an earlier interview with the Missoulian, the head of the Civil Rights Division said the DOJ is "very mindful" that prosecution is a necessary component and much work remains in that area.
"We're looking forward to seeing a lot more work and being able to focus now on the prosecution side of things," said Vanita Gupta, head of Civil Rights. "That work lies ahead for the most part."
In general, she said in her statement, all the DOJ's agreements have resulted in "significant positive progress."
"The agreements have brought about more effective communication and coordination between the different law enforcement partners in their responses to sexual assault, including campus police, the city police and prosecutors, as well as between law enforcement and victim advocates," Gupta said.
In her remarks, Gupta described the Missoula Police Department as a "success story." She said the police department fully implemented its agreement with the DOJ and put all reforms in place, and she described its progress as "tremendous."
"I do think the Missoula Police Department sets the right tone for addressing change, for leading change," Gupta said.
Evidence of success is in survey results that show victims feel more comfortable reporting sexual assaults, she said; actual reporting rose some 54 percent from 2012 to 2014.
Gupta said police changed their culture with new policies, training, practices and procedures. She enumerated specific changes, including:
- Creation of a special victims' unit focused on sex crimes. The unit is made up of five detectives and one supervisor.
- Specialized training in the response to sexual assault.
- Instituting an external review panel to analyze closed cases for "indications of gender bias."
- Completion of an audit of the communitywide response to sexual assault.
- Community advocates reporting better communication and coordination with law enforcement.
- Victim surveys indicating "significant satisfaction" with their treatment by police.
Gupta said UM and campus police also entered into agreements with the DOJ in May 2013 and have made "important strides in addressing and preventing sexual assault on campus."
"We feel confident that the university, including its campus police, will also successfully achieve compliance with the DOJ agreement," Gupta said.
She praised the following reforms at UM:
- Replacing numerous confusing policies with a simple and comprehensive one.
- Training for all employees and for students.
- Increasing student awareness of sexual misconduct including through climate surveys.
- Improving practices for handling reports.
The announcement signals the end of a chapter for the city of Missoula, and Mayor John Engen said the milestone marks a beginning as well. With the approval of the Department of Justice, Missoula marks its continued commitment to citizens here, and it also shows itself to be a model for other communities.
"It is easy as we read the headlines that pop up on our various feeds daily about police departments around the country to forget that we are in the business of first serving and protecting. And the terms of this agreement and the outcome of our efforts are all about serving and protecting," Engen said.
He also said the changes are systemic, and the Missoula Police Department has made permanent shifts in its operations. The community has high expectations, he said, and changes will remain in place regardless of who is mayor or police chief.
"We don't have an opportunity to backslide," Engen said.
Police Chief Mike Brady said he was proud to lead the force of 130 whose members worked to make improvements. He named Capt. Mike Colyer in particular, who oversaw the implementation of the agreement.
"We have been working to improve our response to sexual assault for nearly three years," Brady said.
He named a variety of new practices, including weekly meetings with staff in the Missoula County Attorney's Office and a weekly meeting between him and the campus police chief. He said the department is ensuring "victim-centered investigations."
In his statement, Brady also said an analysis of data showed more than 80 percent of victims were assaulted "by a non-stranger."
UM President Royce Engstrom said campus officials are working hard to meet their deadlines as well, and in conjunction with city police, campus police completed more than 900 hours of training.
He said his goals for campus from the beginning have been to care for survivors, use due process to remove proven offenders, and prevent sexual assaults from occurring in the first place.
"We will meet our legal, ethical and humanitarian responsibilities," Engstrom said. "We couldn't ask for better community partners."
At the event, Cotter said he was proud to share the podium with Mayor Engen, Chief Brady, Capt. Colyer and UM President Engstrom. "One thing I have learned about these leaders: They love this town, and they love this community as much as its citizens love Missoula."