It’s been a little over a week since the initial story about the Department of Justice announcing the results of its investigation into the misdeeds of the Missoula County Prosector’s office, and since then, its head, Fred Van Valkenburg, has acquitted himself about as well as he did before and during the investigation. He’s maintained a combative, unproductive tone and still seems far more interested in protecting his flagging reputation than the rights of crime victims in Missoula County.
In a response to the Department of Justice, Van Valkenburg wrote that he cannot “set the record straight” in some of the specific cases cited by the Department of Justice, which might be a compelling claim had Van Valkenburg not refused for two years to cooperate with the Department of Justice.
Despite his protestations that Missoula County prosecutes more cases than San Diego County, the facts are undeniable. When the police refer a case for prosecution in Missoula, the odds are that the County Prosecutors will not respond. The Kaimin reports:
Between January 2012 and May 2012, “Missoula Police referred 85 reports of sexual assault of adult women to the County Attorney’s Office. According to Missoula Police, a referral to the County Attorney’s Office indicates the Missoula Police has concluded its investigation of the case and is recommending that the case be prosecuted,” according to the DOJ’s letter. The county attorney’s office failed to provide follow-up notification on 29 of those reports.
Perhaps worst of all, Van Valkenburg blamed victims of sexual assault, writing:
“In many instances, victims do not want the cases prosecuted if they are going to be subjected to unfair scrutiny.”
That’s simply astonishing—and evidence that Mr. Van Valkenburg needs to leave office.To blame victims of crime who have filed police reports for his office’s refusal to prosecute clearly demonstrates the failure that the Department of Justice claimed in its investigation of the Missoula County Attorney. Those who are sexually assaulted often face an unfriendly gauntlet of those who discourage them from prosecution, starting with their own fears, the concerns of their friends and family, and even the police, who too often are skeptical of their charges. Van Valkenburg’s office added another obstacle for those crime victims, and blaming them when his office refused to prosecute cases is unconscionable.
At the end of his piece, Mr. Van Valkenburg demonstrates his total commitment to the narrative he’s spun for himself, having the temerity to blame juries for not convicting those who commit sexual assault, while suggesting the problem is not with his office, but the “culture” in our communities. While he’s right that we have a long way to go in this state when it comes to understanding the culture that permits and even, at times, excuses rape, Van Valkenburg seems to be conveniently ignoring his power to shape that culture. One of the best tools to change our cultural attitudes about sexual assault is to prosecute those who assault their friends and acquaintances.
Want to change the culture, Mr. Van Valkenburg? When your office has video evidence of someone spiking a drink with Xanax, prosecute.When your office has a confession of sexual assault, prosecute. When your office has evidence and a confession of an assault on a mentally ill member of your community, prosecute.
Do your job. Prosecute.
The culture and attitude of juries might mean your office will lose a few cases, but the message of prosecutions will be clear: when you assault someone in Missoula County, you will face a trial and the threat of conviction. Rape culture is not just spontaneously generated in our society; effective law enforcement and prosecutors who work as advocates for victims and as agents for justice can have a profound impact on that culture.
It’s time to stop blaming juries, the Department of Justice, and victims of sexual assault, Mr. Van Valkenburg. It’s time to accept responsibility for your failure to protect your community and your role in creating a climate in which rape is permissible.