Justice Department reviews handling of over 80 rape reports in Montana
MISSOULA, Montana (Reuters) - The Justice Department unveiled a broad probe on Tuesday into complaints that authorities were failing to aggressively investigate sexual assault reports in Missoula, Montana, citing more than 80 reported rapes there during the past three years.
The investigation includes a review of the handling of sexual assault and sexual harassment reports at the University of Montana at Missoula, where at least 11 student-related sex assault cases have surfaced in recent months.
At least two members of the university's Big Sky Conference champion football team, the Grizzlies, have been accused of rape, leading to the recent dismissal of the football coach and the school's athletic director.
One aspect of the probe will focus on allegations that local law enforcement has failed to properly investigate and prosecute sexual assaults on women in Missoula due to gender discrimination, the Justice Department said.
Details of the investigation were announced at a news conference in Missoula, a western Montana college town of about 86,000 people whose economy and identity are closely entwined with the state's flagship research institution and its alter ego, Griz Nation.
Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir acknowledged that his department has received roughly 80 rape reports during the past three years. But he said that on a per-capita basis, that figure was at or below the average level of reported rapes for similarly sized college towns across the country.
Muir said he did not know how many of those reports had resulted in criminal charges being filed. Justice Department officials said they will be delving into that very question.
Missoula County's chief prosecutor, Fred Van Valkenburg, fiercely defended his office and the local police department, calling the Justice Department inquiry an "overreach by the federal government."
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)
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