Justice News

Head of Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at Press Conference Announcing Missoula Police Department's Full Compliance with Justice Department Agreement Over Response to Reports of Sexual Assault
Missoula, MT
United States
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Monday, May 11, 2015

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Mike [Cotter], for your extraordinary leadership throughout this case and for your unwavering commitment and service to the people of Montana.  And, likewise, thank you President [Royce C.] Engstrom and Mayor [John] Engen for your truly historic leadership.  And of course we are grateful to Chief Mike Brady for taking on this amazing but also challenging opportunity, and so ably leading the men and women of the Missoula Police Department (MPD) in their transformation under this agreement.  As we gather here today to recognize the good work of the Missoula Police Department we are also recognizing police officers across the country during national police week.  It is important to remember the sacrifices that officers and their families make every day.  Sometimes it is the ultimate sacrifice as we saw over the weekend in Mississippi and last week in New York.  We all owe a debt of gratitude to the brave men and women in law enforcement who serve and protect us all every day across our country.

Also today, we recognize and honor the survivors of sexual assault who had the courage to make their voice heard and change the path forward for this community.  And we recognize and honor the many other leaders of the Missoula community, who join us today, and who have taken significant steps – large and small – to address and prevent sexual assault.  In short, this community has come together to institute long-term, systemic change to protect and ensure the safety of generations to come, and we are here to acknowledge that and to celebrate that.  

Today, I am very happy to join these leaders in announcing a success story.  The Missoula, Montana, Police Department has fully implemented its agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to improve the police department’s response to reports of sexual assault.  The independent reviewer has determined, and the DOJ has agreed, that the Missoula Police Department has successfully implemented all of the reforms set forth in MPD’s agreement with the DOJ.  The DOJ entered into the agreement with MPD in May 2013, as part of a multi-pronged and integrated investigation into the response to sexual assault by the Missoula Police Department, the county attorney and the University of Montana (UM), including its campus police force.  

The MPD agreement sought to institute improvements to police department policies and procedures that would promote effective, nondiscriminatory law enforcement and support for the community.  MPD’s implementation of the agreement has resulted in a host of noteworthy improvements to the Missoula response to sexual assault, including:

  • creation of a new Special Victims’ Unit in the Missoula Police Department, including five detectives and one supervisor focusing on sex crimes cases, and an interview room specifically designed for interviews with victims of sexual assault;
  • extensive specialized training for first responders and detectives in the response to sexual assault;
  • development and institution of an external review panel – among the first of its kind – to review closed sexual assault cases for the comprehensiveness of the investigation and indications of gender bias;
  • completion of an audit of the community-wide response to sexual assault – one of the first community audits to focus exclusively on sexual assault – including all of the key law enforcement agencies, advocacy organizations and medical service providers serving victims of sexual assault in Missoula County;
  • community advocates reporting better communication and coordination with local law enforcement than ever before; and
  • victim surveys indicating significant satisfaction with police officers’ and detectives’ treatment of victims reporting sexual assault to law enforcement.

The MPD’s successful implementation of this agreement in just two years shows that reform can happen when government, police and community leaders do the difficult work together to create change.  There is no question that the kind of reform required to effectively respond to sexual assault can be difficult.  And although there is always room for improvement, even within the best departments, the change that MPD and the city of Missoula has achieved as part of its agreement with the Civil Rights Division is real and is making a dramatic difference.  Today, Missoula law enforcement, and the community as a whole, are stronger as a result MPD’s efforts.  And we know that MPD is committed to continuing to improve and evolve, as every law enforcement agency should, and to sustaining the reforms they have achieved, and to continue to work with their law enforcement and community partners to improve their response to sexual assault.  

Indeed, throughout this process the police department has been working hand in hand with its law enforcement and community partners, including the University of Montana and its campus police department.  The end of this agreement with the MPD marks the completion of one of the four agreements stemming from the department’s unprecedented multi-pronged investigation, launched in May 2012, into allegations that the University of Montana, Missoula, the University of Montana Police Department (UMPD), the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Attorney’s Office discriminated against women by failing to adequately respond to reports of sexual assault.  The changes instituted by the police department are no doubt strengthened by the collaboration between each of these partners.  

This multi-pronged approach to combating sexual assault from the campus to the courthouse door used all of our applicable civil rights laws (Title IX, Title IV, the Safe Streets Act and Section 14141) and was unparalleled in its scope.  Experience has shown that coordinated and informed community responses to sexual assault are more likely to produce better outcomes.  If one or more of these entities is not meeting its civil rights obligations, it negatively impacts the ability of other entities to respond effectively to reports of sexual assault and the willingness of women to report.  The agreements are leading to reform at every stage of the criminal justice system, and in the university system, and enabling Missoula to more effectively protect women on campus and throughout the criminal justice process.

Although we are only announcing the end of one agreement today, thanks to the leadership of people like Mayor Engen, Chief Brady and President Engstrom, as well as countless community leaders across the city of Missoula and on the campus of the University of Montana, we can report significant positive progress on all of the outstanding agreements. 

The DOJ agreements have been a catalyst for powerful and positive change in Missoula’s collective response to sexual assault.  For example, the agreements have brought about more effective communication and coordination between the different law enforcement partners in their responses to sexual assault, including campus police, the city police and prosecutors, as well as between law enforcement and victim advocates.  As indicated by an increase in the number of reports of sexual assault to the city police and the results of a recent survey of victims who had reported sexual assault to law enforcement, victims of sexual assault in Missoula feel better supported and have greater confidence in reporting assault to the city police.  And through steps like increased specialized training, improved policies, and the development of a Special Victims Unit within the Missoula Police Department, the city police has quickly and significantly improved its expertise and effectiveness in responding to sexual assault.

The university and its campus police also entered in to agreements with DOJ in May 2013 and have made important strides in addressing and preventing sexual assault on campus.  We have been working closely and cooperatively with the university to implement the terms of the agreements and long-lasting reforms to address the problems we found in our investigation.  Although there is still work to be done under the agreements and toward our collective goal of a safe and supportive campus for all students, the university has made significant changes that inspire confidence in its effectuate lasting reforms.  These reforms include:

  • replacing numerous, confusing university policies addressing sexual assault with a single policy that is comprehensive, easy to understand, and consistent with the requirements of Title IX and Title IV;
  • conducting training for all employees, including specialized trainings for investigators and first responders;
  • conducting trainings and other educational activities for all students so that they know how to recognize sexual misconduct, report it and intervene safely as a bystander, where appropriate;
  • engaging in other efforts to increase student awareness and assess students’ knowledge of sexual misconduct, including through annual campus climate surveys;
  • improving its practices for handling reports, including providing guidance to mandatory reporters, strengthening oversight and coordinating response across relevant university and community responders, including UMPD and MPD; and
  • UMPD has entered into an MOU with the Missoula Police Department to strengthen, and help sustain, both agencies’ efforts to prevent and effectively respond to sexual assault using a fair, victim-centered and trauma-informed approach.  There is still work to be done, but we appreciate President Engstrom’s leadership and the campus police officers who have demonstrated such dedication to improving public safety on the UM campus while in the national spotlight.

We feel confident that the university, including its campus police, will also successfully achieve compliance with the DOJ agreement.  We will continue to work cooperatively with the university as it implements the agreement and continues to strengthen its response to sexual assault and harassment.

I want to highlight that a common factor critical to all of the progress that we have seen across different agencies and agreements is the meaningful engagement of the community providing input at every stage of our work – during the investigation, the development of the agreement and now the implementation of the agreement.  Under all of the agreements, the entities involved agreed to establish sustainable mechanisms that allow for input from key stakeholders about their practices and procedures.  For example, the university agreed to conduct an annual assessment of the effectiveness of its reforms and to consider any recommendations from community members, parents and law enforcement upon sharing information gathered for the annual assessment with such stakeholders.  And the agreements with UMPD, the Missoula Police Department and the county attorney require these entities to work with community-based organizations and other stakeholders, to assist in developing and implementing the reforms.

Finally, to the entire Missoula community, we thank you for your support of this collective work to chart a new path forward.  Through your acceptance of this challenge, and through your engagement with law enforcement and the university, Missoula has demonstrated to your own daughters and sons – as well as to communities across the country – that we all have a role to play in ensuring a fair and effective law enforcement response to sexual assault, and when we each fulfill that role, we can succeed in making sure our communities safe and supportive for all.

Updated August 19, 2016