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Missoula Mayor John Engen, left, and Police Chief Mark Muir listen in early May 2012 during an announcement by the U.S. Department of Justice of an investigation into how Missoula handles reports of sexual assaults.

Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir has handed the reins of daily operations to Assistant Chief Mike Brady so Muir can focus on the city’s response to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.

The federal investigation into gender bias in the police department led to an agreement between the DOJ and the city of Missoula, and the contract outlines changes police will make to improve their response to reports of rape and sexual violence.

The contract was signed in the middle of May, and since then police have seen “an enormous increase” in the number of sexual assault reports, Muir said. He said the department counts 27 reports in the past 10 weeks, although not all incidents are of recent occurrences, and one dates back to 2006, outside the statute of limitations.

“We’ll continue to see if it’s a pattern or a trend that continues. It’s a real unknown for us, but it’s very unexpected,” Muir said.

The chief said he will never concede to allegations the department was violating people’s civil rights. However, he does want to implement changes set forth in the agreement and lay the groundwork for others before he retires in December.

“By the end of September, we will have fulfilled the first year’s requirement for training, so that is a milestone by all means,” Muir said.

In a July 24 memo, Muir announced he was delegating the authority of daily operations to Brady.

“Brady and I will meet and consult regularly and as necessary to assist in making the next few months productive and supportive of a change in leadership brought about by my retirement.

“Making this change will ensure that I have sufficient time for engaging citizens and partners outside the department to meet the extensive community-based requirements of the DOJ agreement.”

***

The department already is making strides in implementation, Muir said.

On the ground, police officers are more sensitive to “how their efforts to investigate are perceived by victims,” he said. One related practice recommended in the federal agreement, for instance, is that police explain their reason for sensitive lines of questioning before launching into inquiries.

Last week, the monitor hired to oversee the implementation process visited Missoula, and police laid out the action steps they will take to accomplish the terms of the agreement, Muir said. He said the meetings proved successful, especially because the monitor saw firsthand that police have “extensive working relationships” with community partners, especially those who work to prevent violence against women and children.

“He hadn’t been given anything more specific than the findings that were written by DOJ, so he was sort of led to believe that … law enforcement was on this little island, which is clearly not the case,” Muir said.

Next week, a former prosecutor who conducts trainings around the world in the area of violence against women will hold classes in Missoula, Muir said. He said he met her at a leadership institute a couple of years ago.

Muir requested she put on a training here, and 95 people from around the state will attend, including investigators from Missoula, he said. Other law enforcement officers will attend training sessions scheduled in September, completing the training requirements for the entire year.

As part of the federal agreement, the local department also is selecting a panel of professionals to review closed cases, Muir said. The panel will examine whether changes in policies and procedures make their way into the field.

“We continue to disagree with the Department of Justice with respect to whether we were violating people’s rights, but we see that there are better ways that we could accomplish both our work and to improve the outcomes of the criminal justice process,” the chief said.

***

One unexpected milestone is the high number of sexual assaults reported to the department since the agreement was signed, Muir said. In the past 10 weeks, police have taken 27 reports, more than all of last year and the year before.

“We have to wait and see if it’s more than just a little blip,” Muir said. “And it’s just the opposite of what we saw following the Jordan Johnson trial, where all of a sudden, for a month and a half after the trial, nobody reported a rape.”

In a trial that drew national attention earlier this year, University of Montana Grizzlies quarterback Johnson was found not guilty of sexual intercourse without consent.

When he retires, Muir wants the police department to be in better shape than he found it, and he’s not against making improvements. However, he said it’s possible the DOJ scrutiny hurt rather than helped local law enforcement.

“I could argue that the way it has come about has the potential to take us down further before we can bounce back,” Muir said. “But I’m not making that argument. I’m saying I think I could make that argument.”

In his own departmental review, the chief said he identified in January the same findings the DOJ reported four months later, albeit the feds alleged civil rights violations, and police disagreed.

With or without the federal inquiry, he said, the department would be “pressing ahead with these issues.”

The federal investigation has added cost to improvements that would have been underway anyway, he said. According to Muir, the DOJ has forced the city to conduct trainings it’s already held.

The federal government spent an estimated $100,000 to investigate police, he said, and the city is spending $45,000 on one trainer and more than $50,000 on a monitor.

“I think this is a costly way to get better,” Muir said.

***

Missoula Mayor John Engen said it is Muir’s responsibility to implement the agreement, and he’s the right person to do it having educated himself for years around best practices in the area of sexual assault.

“He takes it extremely seriously. He was very involved in the creation of the agreement,” Engen said.

The change in chief duties means Muir will spend four months on the DOJ contract, and the mayor said the time is necessary. For one thing, it allows a smooth transition when the chief retires, and second, the project is important and involved.

“It’s a lot of organizing,” Engen said. “So there are a number of components. We need to organize around training. We need to organize around external reporting. We’ve needed to organize the way that we provide information to our monitor. … I think we’re all better for it in the end, but it’s a bunch.”

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Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

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