By TOM DIDDEL
The University of Montana, the University’s Office of Public Safety, the County Attorney’s Office, and the city’s police department all found themselves under the scrutiny of the Department of Justice this week over the handling of sexual assault cases.
The Missoulian reported that all four offices received written notification that they would be the subject of a federal investigation by the Department of Justice.
In the letters addressed to the Missoula Police Department and the County Attorney’s Office, the DOJ stated that the department is examining allegations that the offices have “failed to investigate reports of sexual assaults against women because of their gender or in a manner that has a disparate impact on women.”
Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, stated the investigation is a civil manner and not criminal according to the Missoulian. The DOJ examination will encompass 80 sexual assaults that occurred throughout Missoula over a period of three years, according to the article.
In a Tuesday news conference, Missoula Mayor John Engen reiterated his faith in the Missoula Police department and Police Chief Muir and the city’s handling of the crimes, stating that he has “no sense that we have failed to do our jobs.” Engen went on to pledge his cooperation with the DOJ, promising that “if there are things we aren’t doing right, we’re absolutely committed to doing them right,” according to the Missoulian.
Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg was less acquiescent in his prepared response to the announcement of the federal inquiry. Van Valkenburg took exception to the DOJ’s decision not to share the evidence of wrong-doing by his office.
The county attorney wrote, “While we have no choice, given the heavy hand of the federal government, but to cooperate with this investigation, we find it extremely ironic that the United States Department of Justice refuses to tell us what we have supposedly done wrong,” according to an ABC news online article. Van Valkenburg went on to “adamantly deny” allegations that his office discriminated against women, according to the article.
The federal investigation comes on the heels of a complaint filed with the Federal Department of Education, in which the university football team was accused of harassment. The grievance, which was chronicled in a Make it Missoula article last month, was obtained by the Missoulian through a Freedom of Information Act request.
It is still unclear whether the Department of Education complaint spurred the investigation by the DOJ, but, according to an email sent to KPAX News, the department is “coordinating with the Department of Justice in its investigation.”
The Missoulian reported that Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division “promised a thorough and transparent investigation” giving his assurance “that if no problems are uncovered, the agency will quickly announce that.”
Each week, Tom Diddel recaps the week’s most talked-about story in Missoula. Visit the Make it Missoula News & Opinion section for more talk of the town.
Tom Diddel has lived in Missoula on and off for nearly thirty-eight years. He enjoys skiing, hiking, and many other outdoor activities. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Montana and is currently working as a Freelance Writer and a Para-Educator.