HELENA — The Missoula Police Department has agreed to improve the way it responds to and investigates reports of sexual assault after a yearlong investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found that some investigative practices made it more difficult to uncover the truth and discouraged women from cooperating.
The DOJ reached a settlement agreement with the city after investigating whether its response to sexual assault amounted to unlawful gender discrimination. The city expects to fully implement the agreement over the next two years, the Justice Department said in a statement released Wednesday.
The agreement requires the police department to implement or revise its policies for investigating reported assaults, provide training to officers and their supervisors and change practices that discourage women from reporting sexual assaults. It also requires the department to work with an independent monitor, community-based organizations and others to implement the changes and ensure they are effective.
“The Missoula Police Department plays an absolutely critical role in protecting women victims of sexual assault and ensuring that perpetrators of sexual assault are brought to justice,” Michael Cotter, U.S. Attorney for Montana, said in a statement. “This agreement will ensure that the department’s officers and detectives are fully prepared to play that role.”
The DOJ reviewed more than 350 sexual assault reports received by Missoula police between January 2008 and May 2012 and found that in some cases the women were made to feel the assault was their fault while in others police failed to obtain timely, credible statements from suspects or witnesses. Case files indicated officers questioned the veracity of reports of acquaintance rape and improperly relied on women’s sexual histories in deciding if their complaint had merit.
The investigation found that some police reports did not give full information to the county attorney’s office, which ultimately determines whether charges will be filed. It also suggested the county attorney’s office generally does not provide adequate explanation for not pursuing charges.
The probe found that police at times set up appointments to interview suspects that gave them up to a week to modify or coordinate their stories. It also found that officers sometimes failed to determine, investigate and adequately convey to the county attorney’s office when a victim might not have been able to consent to sex due to being incapacitated by alcohol or drugs.
Investigators heard from women who said they were asked whether they really wanted to pursue the case or were questioned about how forcefully they said “no.” One woman who reported being gang raped said the officer told her it “was probably just a drunken night and a mistake,” and she was led to believe the assault was her fault.
Some women said the police officers seemed concerned about the ramifications of a rape charge on a male suspect, and in two cases police told the woman reporting the assault that the suspect seemed remorseful or had cried and said he was sorry.
One woman said a detective was “constantly” telling her how difficult it would be for her to testify in court and for the defense attorney to question her about the assault. The woman ultimately decided not to pursue charges, the report said.
Roy L. Austin, Jr., deputy assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, praised the city of Missoula for its cooperation in the investigation and its willingness to make the needed changes. He noted the city already has begun its work.
The DOJ investigation was done as the agency also investigated how the University of Montana and its Office of Public Safety respond to reports of sexual assault and into how the Missoula County attorney’s office prosecutes such cases.
The DOJ reached an agreement with the university last week that also called for policy changes and training. Its investigation into the county attorney’s office continues.