Eyes off the ball 

Missoula sure knows how to hunt down a vandal

Two weeks ago, Missoula police arrested a man they believe spray-painted "Rape Nation" stencils on the Northside pedestrian bridge and stuck "Rape Nation" stickers to pretty much every flat surface in town. Todd Patrick Jordan, 35, pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges of mischief and conspiracy and was released on $2,500 bail. It was the most expensive misdemeanor release of the day, beating out drunk and disorderlies, drug possessions and an alarming number of DUIs.

Before we go any further, I would like to make it clear that I think "Rape Nation" is stupid. Vandalism is stupid. A sophisticated society does not express itself through stickers, and spray-painting a bridge is a good way to feel important without actually helping anyone. If the mischief conspiracy behind "Rape Nation" believes Missoula has a sexual assault problem and the Montana Grizzlies are to blame, they could volunteer at the Student Assault Resource Center, Make Your Move Missoula, or another service organization in the time it takes to print stickers.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news

That said, the irony here is as obvious as it is frustrating. The sum authorities of Missoula jumped on the case of the "Rape Nation" stickerist with alacrity. The Missoula Police Department released five surveillance photos, including one of the perpetrator's bicycle. Palmer was arrested and charged within 72 hours. This is the same police department that allegedly told Kerry Barrett, when she filed a sexual assault complaint in 2011, that "there is not much we can do except scare the guy."

They certainly scared the hell out of Todd Jordan. Before he had even been arrested, Erika Palmer, the University of Montana director of trademarks and licensing, threatened whoever was behind the stickers with an infringement lawsuit. "That is our exact paw," she told the Missoulian. "If the paw is the same, that is trademark infringement."

Of course, the first step in a trademark infringement suit is to demonstrate that a reasonable person might mistake the image in question for the trademarked one, and very little Griz merchandise has the word "rape" on it. The stickers and stencils are obviously parody, and they refer to a scandal that is very much in the public eye. Unfortunately, both the police and the university seem more interested in quashing that scandal than addressing the problem that led to it.

After the Department of Justice launched an investigation into the failure of county prosecutors, Missoula police and the university to adequately address accusations of sexual assault, UM Vice President Jim Foley did what anyone does when the house catches fire: he ran around smashing the smoke alarms.

Foley urged officials to use the term "date rape" instead of "gang rape." He wondered in an email whether one alleged victim had violated the Student Conduct Code by talking publicly about what happened to her. He wrote an angry letter to the Kaimin, noting that "the watchdog never barks at its own family members," and he emailed Mayor John Engen demanding an apology from a local police officer who publicly wondered when the university would "stop this spiraling PR mess." Then, in June, he disappeared from the news completely.

You would think the police and the university would have learned from Foley's disastrous example. When the Justice Department accuses you of collusion, stop colluding. When the public suspects you have covered up sexual assaults, stop covering up. Instead, the police launched a public manhunt for a small-time vandal, and the university announced its intention to sue whoever had the audacity to mention rape and the Griz in the same sticker.

I like the Montana Grizzlies. I like the university, and I bet I would like the Missoula Police Department, assuming they someday catch the lady who keeps pooping in the bushes next to my house. I want to believe that they did not mean to under-enforce laws against sexual assault, and that they would never try to keep people from talking about rape just to sell football tickets. But the last six months have made that difficult.

The last week has made it hard not to think that law enforcement learned the wrong lesson. They devoted substantial resources to stopping the problem of someone pointing out the problem of rape, and the courts made sure the man they arrested didn't get off easy. Meanwhile, county attorney Fred Van Valkenberg has refused to cooperate with the DOJ investigation, which he says is political.

"It seems to be tied in to the so-called war on women that is being waged at the presidential level," he told Fox News, "and I find that very disturbing."

It's a nonsensical reason from a man who is hunting for excuses as assiduously as he hunts for vandals. The Griz may be faltering, but Team Missoula is playing defense hard. University, police, prosecutors—they've all lined up in perfect formation. Too bad they've taken their eyes off the ball.

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