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MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Police providing leadership on rape response

MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Police providing leadership on rape response

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For the past two years, after the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into the handling of rape reports by Missoula police, the Missoula County Attorney's Office and the University of Montana, the Missoula Police Department has put every effort into improving its response to reports of sexual assaults.

On Monday, those efforts - and their results - were publicly applauded by the Justice Department with an announcement that Missoula police have met the terms of their agreement with federal officials. Indeed, the police department has fully implemented a host of significant changes, and ahead of schedule at that.

Moreover, Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and U.S. Attorney Michael W. Cotter of the District of Montana, once again pointed out that the Missoula Police Department's accomplishments on this front make it a model for police throughout the nation experiencing the same challenges.

And while Missoulians can certainly appreciate that our police are providing this important leadership nationally, it's even more important to acknowledge that the police department's commitment to implementing the terms of the agreement is setting the pace for local agencies as well. And that these combined efforts are of the utmost importance to the entire community - rape victims most of all.

Coincidentally, the Justice Department made the announcement shortly after author and investigative journalist Jon Krakauer was in town to publicly answer questions about his book, "Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town," released about a month ago. The book focused on a number of University of Montana students who were sexually assaulted between 2010 and 2012, which is also the span of time investigated by the Justice Department.

Missoula's collective response to rape reports has therefore remained a subject of much community discussion. That's a good thing. Missoula must, as a community, continue to discuss this uncomfortable subject, and continue to pay attention to the way our officials respond to it.

With the police department's implementation of its agreement with the Justice Department, the community now has a way to gauge what successful response to sexual assault reports look like. Impressively, the police department has set the bar high, with a number of major changes running from the creation of a new Special Victims Unit to specialized training.

These changes are having a measurable, positive effect already. Consider the number of rapes reported to Missoula police. As Cotter pointed out, rape remains a drastically under-reported crime across the United States, with only about 2 percent of college students who were incapacitated when they were attacked ever reporting the attack. Given that context, it's remarkable to note that Missoula police received 59 rape reports in 2012, 79 in 2013 and 91 in 2014 - a 54 percent increase in just three years.

That's not to say the department has achieved perfection. Gaps remain, but the Missoula police's department-wide determination to address them has given the Justice Department - and the community - every reason to believe they will continue striving to improve.

Meanwhile, the University of Montana has also made significant progress with its agreement with the DOJ. The Missoula County Attorney's Office got a later start, having reached an agreement only last year. Additionally, the agreement with the County Attorney's Office is unique because the Montana Attorney General’s Office is deeply involved as well.

On Monday, the Justice Department acknowledged that when it comes to the Missoula County Attorney's Office specifically, much work remains.

The Department of Justice has been invaluable in pinpointing problems, measuring progress and making sure that information about sexual assault in Missoula is made public. But at the end of the day, it's up to the entire community of Missoula to hold our public officials accountable as we now turn our attention to the prosecution of sexual assaults.

Missoulian editorial board: Publisher Mark Heintzelman, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen.

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