The federal probe into possible gender discrimination by the Missoula Police Department, University of Montana and Missoula County Attorney’s Office – and their handling of at least 80 rape allegations – has some community leaders “stunned,” “dumbfounded” and calling for more action.
“It’s easy to be outraged about the war on women when it comes to contraception and the conversation that’s been had in Washington, D.C., over the past couple months,” said Stacy Rye, executive director of WORD – Women’s Opportunity and Resource Development. “It’s a much harder conversation to have with people we know.”
But the unprecedented scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Justice has others on both sides of the aisle wondering if the review is politically motivated in a presidential election year. Republican state lawmaker Champ Edmunds shared on social media a KGVO story questioning whether the probe is meant to highlight vice president Joe Biden’s Violence Against Women Act since it’s the first time the DOJ has probed a county attorney’s office.
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“I don’t think that’s ever happened in the history of the Department of Justice,” said Edmunds, of Missoula. “I’m curious why they’re going after (County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg) the way they are. I’ll be interested to see their findings.”
The federal review follows a University of Montana investigation that began in December with allegations that two students were gang-raped, possibly after being drugged, by several male students. An independent investigator counted nine related allegations of sexual assault since September 2010 – two more occurred since – and concluded that “the UM has a problem of sexual assault on and off campus.”
The DOJ review will go beyond the problems linked to the university campus to examine the 80 reports of all rapes – not just those involving students – throughout Missoula over three years.
Some community leaders hope the investigation yields helpful directives, but the national attention also comes at a time the city of Missoula is actively working to market itself as a destination town to tourists and prime location for businesses and investors.
Barb Neilan, executive director of Destination Missoula – formerly the Missoula Convention and Visitors Bureau – said tourism brings an estimated 1.1 million visitors a year to the Garden City, and accounts for $221 million in local spending. She’s watching the stories running in national media outlets and paying close attention to comments.
“I would hope that people would not make a decision about this incredible community based off of a headline when all the facts aren’t in yet,” Neilan said.
So far, Missoula’s track record is good when it comes to tourists, she said. Some 82 percent of first-time visitors will return within two years, and they continue to return, one reason she loves her job.
“Selling Missoula is fun. It’s so easy to do. It’s such an incredibly creative community, the people are warm and welcoming,” said Neilan, who said the town is safe and family minded.
Skilled public relations gurus can spin negative news into positive attention, but Neilan said that’s not and shouldn’t be the case when it comes to rape. It’s unacceptable, and if Missoula truly has a problem, she believes city leaders will correct it.
“It’s a hard issue because I don’t want to sound callous. I really believe that rape is unacceptable, and if we have an issue, it needs to be taken care of,” she said.
James Grunke, recently hired as head of the Missoula Economic Partnership, said he hasn’t fielded any comments from investors or businesses about the federal probe. The partnership is a program that came out of Mayor John Engen’s economic development initiative.
“Certainly, we, like anybody else, are concerned any time we have news like that. But you know, I think it’s always good to keep in mind this is not a criminal investigation,” Grunke said.
The department isn’t looking for a “rapist terrorizing the community,” but it’s reviewing processes and procedures, he said. “It’s a remedial review of how these cases are handled.”
While Grunke said the investigation “certainly has the potential to be negative” for economic development, the Missoula Economic Partnership’s role is to continue to promote the city’s qualified, educated workforce, strong relationship with the University of Montana and its positive identity.
“We need to continue to just promote what it is we all value about Missoula and Montana and what makes us a great place to live and work. And that really has to be our message because it really is the truth as well,” Grunke said.
The probe comes in the thick of election season, and the timing has raised some eyebrows. Rep. Edmunds said he doesn’t necessarily believe the federal investigation is politically motivated, but he wants people to at least have the information to consider.
Edmunds, who said men also are victims of sexual assaults, said some accusations still need to be addressed, but he isn’t sure they need to be reviewed by an outside party: “Do we need the Department of Justice to look into those? Or could we look into those ourselves?”
He had nothing but praise for the Missoula Police Department, he said the University of Montana already has taken steps to fix its reporting problems, and he was heartened to hear Engen note the number of rapes here isn’t above average.
“Not that one case of sexual assault is good, but to know that we’re not having more in Missoula than is average for a town or university is somewhat good to hear,” Edmunds said.
Missoula City Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken, though, said the number itself isn’t as important as the handling of the cases: “It’s about (the way) the university and our police department and our county attorney’s office respond to those.”
Best practices in the field are well researched and established, and she said Missoula should employ them. When the investigation is complete, Wolken said she hopes to learn if there are changes agencies should make that would lead to more prosecutions – and learn whether people feel victimized by the system or if there are factors outside of it that make them change their minds about wanting to press forward.
“I’m interested to see what recommendations they have for the university to handle these cases and to work with our police department in a more concerted way,” she said.
Wolken, who teaches law at the University of Montana, said the effects of the rape allegations are rippling beyond victims, and she hopes the community conversation can include the impacts of violence on all women. “Especially on campus, I think there’s a sense that women have more of a heightened sense of their surroundings.”
She said she was disappointed in the strong rebuff the county attorney gave to federal investigators and said no one should take the review personally. “My focus is on making sure victims get the services they need and we address violence in our community – and (it’s) not on individual egos.”
While some surmise political motivations are behind the problem, Van Valkenburg doesn’t think so.
“I hope that there isn’t,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m somewhat suspicious of it all. It makes no sense other than that, unless this is part of their way to show the Obama administration is out to protect women. I just hope that’s not the case. I think very highly of President Obama. I hope he gets re-elected. I don’t think so highly of the Department of Justice.”
One narrative some members of the community have tired of hearing is blaming the victim. In response to the news of multiple rape and date-rape-drug allegations earlier this year, UM officials were prompt in urging women to keep a close eye on their drinks and joined city officials in recommending victims call 9-1-1.
Rye, though, wasn’t sold on the approach: “Common sense tips usually sound like we’re reframing the conversation to put the blame and put the responsibility on women or a victim. And part of this conversation has to be about men. This is not just a women’s issue.”
Rye also said that noting Missoula’s rape occurrence is average isn’t an adequate defense. In fact, she couldn’t think of any other example of “disease, plague, pestilence” that it would be acceptable for 25 percent of one gender to experience.
“I’m dumbfounded that anyone would say it’s OK to be typical in this regard. One is too many,” Rye said.
Engen is among those who have noted Missoula’s rape rate is average for a town of its size. Rye, who as a former councilwoman clashed with him on occasion, said she hopes he is broadening his sources of information beyond the police department.
“It sure would be great to have some men in the community who are leaders, like the mayor, say, ‘I’d like to learn about that. ... I’m sure there’s things I don’t know, and how can I best respond to this?’ ” she said.
City Councilman Jon Wilkins also used the word “dumbfounded” in relation to the number of rape allegations in Missoula in three years. “That kind of blew me away when I heard that.”
He said “the university has done all kinds of things wrong,” and while he offered praise to police, he also believes officers could learn more sensitivity and receive better training in their responses. He’s hoping the investigation yields some direction.
“I’d definitely like to learn how we can do things better within the city itself, with our police department and within our city,” Wilkins said. “I guess the biggest thing I would like out of this thing is that they come down on the university a little harder on their reporting issues.”
He, too, didn’t like hearing people blame the victim. Earlier this year, one woman came before the council and talked about the way officials handled her rape case.
“Afterward, I heard a couple people (say), ‘She’s just a trouble-maker,’ ” Wilkins said. “Well, because you complain about something, it makes you a trouble-maker all of a sudden? That just kind of was not right to me.”