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Police in Missoula, Montana, agree to change handling of rape cases

By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - Police in Missoula, Montana, have agreed to change the way they investigate sexual assault accusations under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice that follows a similar move by a local university, officials said on Wednesday.

The deal followed a year-long investigation by Justice Department officials into allegations the University of Montana in Missoula and city police failed to deal properly with sexual assault and harassment reports.

The inquiries stemmed from reports that women on campus had suffered unfair treatment that infringed on their civil rights and violated constitutional bans on gender-based discrimination.

Under the agreement with the Missoula Police Department, the agency will adopt measures designed to improve the safety of women in the community, boost authorities' ability to effectively investigate sex crimes and increase public confidence in its response to sexual assaults.

"A police department cannot truly protect women in its community without being prepared to respond to reports of sexual assault effectively and without bias," Roy Austin, deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division, said in a statement.

The Justice Department struck a deal last week with the University of Montana, which pledged to reform how it responds to rape accusations after a federal review of at least 11 reported sexual assaults since 2010 involving students, several of whom were members of the school's football team.

The federal inquiry found that mishandling of rape reports by Missoula police compromised sexual assault investigations from the outset and had the effect of depriving female sexual assault victims of basic legal protections.

For example, a woman who reported vaginal and anal rape, which the suspect described as consensual, was asked by a Missoula detective why she had not fought or cried out. The detective then said to the woman, "Tell me the truth - is this something we want to go through with?" according to a document outlining the findings of the federal investigation.

U.S. officials also found Missoula police improperly relied on women's sexual histories to evaluate sexual assault reports.

Missoula Mayor John Engen said the agreement underscored the city's willingness to serve as an example for the rest of the nation.

"We've always known we are not perfect and can always improve. Today we have another instrument to help us get there," he said in a statement.

Months before the U.S. Justice Department announced its probe, Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir conducted an examination of his department's handling of sexual assault reports and found a lack of communication with victims of sexual violence.

The deal with federal authorities affirmed officers' "conviction and duty" to be the best, he said in a statement.

A separate Justice Department probe into whether Missoula County prosecutors mishandled rape cases was continuing.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Kevin Gray and Peter Cooney)

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