Sexual assault 

Van Valkenburg stands his ground

Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg came out swinging last week in response to the U.S. Department of Justice's criticisms of how his office has prosecuted sexual assaults.

"They're a bunch of bullies is what they are," Van Valkenburg said of the DOJ.

On May 15, the federal government released findings from a yearlong investigation into how the Missoula Police Department handled more than 350 reports of sexual assault between January 2008 and May 2012. The report outlined significant flaws in communication between police and the Missoula County Attorney's Office as among the deficiencies hindering local efforts to hold perpetrators accountable.

"MCAO generally provides no information to MPD about why it has declined to prosecute a sexual assault case," the DOJ found. Similarly, federal investigators said, "attorneys rarely documented their decisions in a meaningful way" and that MPD officials told them "that detectives are 'frustrated' with MCAO's 'lack of follow-up and prosecution in cases of sexual assault.'"

Van Valkenburg has, unlike the University of Montana and MPD, refused to cooperate with the DOJ investigation. He argues that the DOJ doesn't have authority over his office.

"Our job is to work with the Police Department or the Sheriff's Office and they know why cases are declined," Van Valkenburg says.

Despite Van Valkenburg's refusal to cooperate with the DOJ, he says that he's committed to maintaining productive dialogue with local law enforcement. "You just work on that process," he says.

In fact, MPD Chief Mark Muir committed to an agreement with the DOJ last week that, in exchange for absolving his department of any potential legal liability, commits to increasing communication with Van Valkenburg's office, among other things.

"There's unquestionably some room for improvement with regard to getting explanations from a prosecutor as to why they declined [to prosecute a case]," Muir says.

He says Van Valkenburg's issues with the DOJ are not hindering his efforts to forge a stronger dialogue with the County Attorney's Office. Muir adds that he and Van Valkenburg have already discussed ways to more effectively bring sexual assault victims together with law enforcement, victims' rights advocates and prosecutors. Their goal, he says, is to ensure that women who have been raped and assaulted "can hear and be heard."

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