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Sunday's Missoulian article regarding police and prosecution handling of sexual assault cases did not accurately reflect what I believe and what I know. Citizens deserve a clear statement of the Missoula Police Department's position on sexual assault reporting.

Anyone reading that newspaper account could easily, but incorrectly, assume that as Missoula's Chief of Police I hold the opinion that half of women and men who report sex crimes to police are making false reports. Neither I nor any of the officers working in the Police Department believe that. I also realize that such a notion is damaging to the community's trust and our ability to serve you.

I've been paying careful attention to sexual-assault statistics since I was an investigations supervisor in 2004. At that time, I conducted an assessment of sexual-assault investigations to learn what changes might help reduce sexual violence victimization and improve investigations. Our efforts found that only 1 in 39 reporting victims had knowingly made a false report to law enforcement. While there is research around the nation alleging a greater percentage of false rape allegations, I know that here in Missoula that percentage is a miniscule fraction of reports we receive.

Again, I don't believe that half of all rape allegations are false. On the contrary, I believe most of them are true, and our department investigates those allegations accordingly.

I expect investigations to begin with an assumption that the claim is true, but law enforcement owes society the duty to critically balance all investigations. Victims of sexual violence are highly reluctant to report to police for many reasons, including being disbelieved. Sex crimes are priorities to your police department, and we share the common belief that victims are vulnerable to re-victimization by the criminal justice system, which has a duty to the victims and the accused alike to find the truth. The Missoula Police Department takes that role seriously and works with partner programs to help victims as best we can, to help victims heal from these traumatizing crimes.

I am grateful for the many viable and worthwhile victim programs in our community. It is critical that before, during and after the investigative process, victims have an opportunity to work with victim advocates, highly trained forensic nurses and professional counselors to speed the difficult healing process. Perpetrators of sexual violence deserve no sympathy from the average citizen or police investigator.

"Rape" in Montana is classified as "Sexual Intercourse without Consent" and requires certain facts in evidence to establish probable cause to arrest. There must be forced sexual intercourse with the victim against their will, unless the victim is incapable of giving consent for a variety of reasons, like unconsciousness, age or disability. Rape cases are a significant challenge; proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury is even more difficult. Too many never make it to court, and when some do there is tragic re-victimization and often blame heaped on the victim by the accused.

For decades, crime prevention efforts have dealt with a "crime triangle" consisting of: time/location, perpetrator and victim. The premise of prevention is that if one of these factors is removed or missing, a crime cannot occur. Efforts to thwart sexual violence incidents have been through education and identification of risk factors that may bring victims within reach of perpetrators. Those are the harsh reminders given out in prevention literature pointing out the relationships of offenders to their victims, the high-risk behaviors of victims and the statistics of how many crimes go unreported. That model has not worked to significantly reduce or change behaviors of victims or perpetrators, and it's time to seek change. Sadly, it is not a problem that we can prosecute our way out of, but it is time to shift our focus to offenders and reducing offenses.

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News reports can shake confidence in the police, but there was one statistic from my 2004 assessment that every victim should know. Data showed that when police were summoned promptly to reported rapes an arrest was 10 times more likely than if there was a delay in reporting to police. Reporting remains the victims' decision, but when prompt it can greatly change the legal outcome.

Mark Muir is Chief of Police for the Missoula Police Department.

 

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