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Missoula County Courthouse

It's good news for the Missoula Police Department, but it won't sound like it at first.

Reports of rape nearly doubled from 2012 to 2014, said detective division Capt. Mike Colyer.

The reason it's good news, at least right now, is rape continues to be among the most under-reported crimes, Colyer said.

"So to see the reporting numbers go up can be an indicator of public trust going up," he said.

Public trust may have hit rock bottom several years ago when the U.S. Department of Justice came to town to investigate gender bias and sexual assaults in Missoula. The federal probes forced changes at the University of Montana, the police department, and the Missoula County Attorney's Office.

Tuesday, Doubleday releases Jon Krakauer's book about the rape crisis in Missoula. "Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town" examines sexual assaults here from 2010 to 2012 and shares victims' stories and firsthand experiences with law enforcement.

On the eve of the release, some local authorities are pleased to share evidence Missoula has gotten better. The process was painful, said Mayor John Engen.

"As an organization, sort of coming to the realization that we have a long way to go is difficult, and the process was difficult, but I think to a person here at City Hall, and to a person involved in care of victims, we believe we're in a much better position to bring perpetrators to justice and to treat victims with respect and compassion," Engen said.

Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst, though, believes Missoula has been doing well all along compared to the rest of the nation. She pointed to a couple different studies including data from a San Diego County report from 2005 through 2007 showing 11 percent of rape reports resulted in prosecution – compared to 18 percent in Missoula from 2007 to 2012, she said in an email.

"Our sexual assault prosecution rates continue to be higher than the norm," Pabst said.

In "Missoula," Krakauer notes the norm nationwide is that the vast majority of victims don't report rapes, and perpetrators are often acquaintances who assault more than one victim.

The bestselling author and journalist also identifies Pabst, who did not answer his questions, as the main impediment in Missoula for rape victims. She argues he does not know her work, is not interested in facts, and didn't give her time to meaningfully comment.

***

In Missoula, the police department has quantitative and qualitative reports that show progress.

More victims are reporting sexual assaults to police, yet advocates and First Step are not seeing the same increases, Colyer said. He said the comparison supports the assessment public trust has grown.

At the same time, fewer victims are choosing to disengage in investigations, Colyer said. In fact, he said the number of victims who withdraw from investigations has dropped an estimated 15 or 16 percent.

Maybe more importantly, he said, are survey results showing victims believe they are being treated right by police. The survey was "a very early look," and it was just five or six victims, but each gave police a 100 percent on five questions about their experience in the cop shop, he said.

"So the statistics are what they are, and we think there's value in those, but we really think their perception of the way they're treated by us is the most important thing," he said.

Police made changes under an agreement with the Department of Justice, and the contract's target end date is May 15. The agreement requires progress reports to the community, and Colyer said the department has not determined if and how continued communication to the public might take place.

He also said police will not backslide, not one bit.

"This is all I've done for over two years. I have no intention of letting us go backwards and undo all of this work that we've accomplished," Colyer said.

He said police remain committed to their revised operations, policies and procedures. At the same time, he'd like to pare down the number of felony sex offenses a volunteer external review panel evaluates to a sampling of cases instead of all of them.

Preparing the case files is a lot of work for police, and reviewing the material is time intensive for the volunteers, he said. 

***

UM and the County Attorney's Office made significant changes as well. However, they can't as easily identify outcomes for victims and survivors at this point.

Lucy France, legal counsel for UM, said in the past, different bodies on campus operated as silos and kept their own data on rape reports. Now, people on campus know to report incidents to the Title IX office, she said, and the office gathers data in a prescriptive way that allows UM to analyze numbers.

"What's changed is a more sophisticated institutional response to make sure we're effecting positive change," France said.

In the past, some students reported rapes to UM and believed their report would lead to a police investigation, and no one at UM told students they had to talk with police separately.

"That would not happen now," France said.

UM also has supported different campaigns to try to help students, she said. The lauded "Make your Move!" initiative, developed in collaboration with community agencies including YWCA Missoula and the Missoula City-County Department of Grants and Community Programs, teaches bystanders to intervene to prevent a sexual assault. She does not have data that show results of the efforts.

She also said there isn't enough data yet to show whether more perpetrators are getting expelled from UM, but campus officials are now collecting numbers in a methodical way.

The entire Montana University System has made changes as a result of the rape reports, said Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner for communications in the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

All campuses reported to the Commissioner's Office on their procedures for preventing and reporting sexual violence, he said. He said all campuses also have better coordination with city police and county attorneys.

Paying attention to the issue scared the Commissioner's Office because officials worried about how the public would perceive an uptick in reports. Statistics say the majority of rapes still go unreported.

"We all kind of said, we're going to have to have a strong stomach and buckle our seat belts because if we get what we want, we're going to see an increase," McRae said.

***

In an email, County Attorney Pabst said it's too early to identify trends since her office made changes, but she said early indicators are positive.

"A huge misconception is that Missoula was not prosecuting enough sexual assault cases, and that is why the DOJ came to town," Pabst said in an email.

Rather, she said, the main objectives of the new protocols in the County Attorney's Office are to "make the criminal justice process more victim-centered," improve communication with victims, collaborate with other law enforcement, and keep up with best practices. 

"We have seen great progress toward these goals," Pabst said.

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