Questions emerge from DOJ’s investigation into University of Montana police

The blistering findings, though not always supported with documentation, serve as a warning shot for all campus police: the feds are watching

In May, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), through the Special Litigation Section, released a public letter of findings in their investigation into the Office of Public Safety response to sexual assaults at the University of Montana. The DOJ looked at a three-year timeframe in which the campus police department allegedly inappropriately handled / investigated 30+ sexual crimes. 

This appears to be the first time that the DOJ has conducted an investigation into a campus law enforcement agency. I also believe this is the first time that an agency of fewer than 20 officers has been thusly investigated.

With regard to the investigation, based on my review of the report and additional documentation, it is hard to determine the veracity of all the claims by the DOJ relating to sexually based crimes. But that’s not the only question mark.

Does the DOJ Have the Standing to Investigate?
The DOJ specifically conducted an investigation because the agency determined there was a pattern or practice of violating citizens’ Constitutional rights — that women were unfairly treated and discriminated against because of the failed investigations, practices, policies and procedures of the Department of Public Safety.

A question comes to mind. Is the federal government attempting to control and interfere with the rights of police officers to act in a professional manner, or are they attempting to increase police professionalism within higher education?

There is some discussion on that question now taking place among higher education law enforcement professionals.

While it should be the goal of every police department to run its operations based on the Constitution, it is apparent that not every agency is following those standards to the DOJ’s satisfaction — otherwise, we wouldn’t have DOJ investigations into local police agencies.

The fact is, DOJ has the power to civilly investigate organizations that have demonstrated a pattern and practice that violates the Constitution of the United States.

Furthermore, the May 9 letter to the university from Gary Jackson (DOE) and Anurima Bhargava (DOJ) specifically states that “[t]he (MOU) Agreement will serve as a blueprint for colleges, and universities throughout the country to protect students from sexual harassment and assault.”

To the lay person, this should serve notice that the federal government is coming after higher education law enforcement to ensure that they are conducting Constitutional policing, and not using any discriminatory practices. The DOE and DOJ are requiring remediation in regard to this civil investigation against the University of Montana, as well as the City of Missoula Police Department and the county.

Where did the University of Montana DPS Fall Short?
The Department of Public Safety (law enforcement) appeared in the report as completely incompetent when conducting investigations of sex-based crime — specifically when women are victims. But facts are sometimes not cited to back up the assertions.

Page 12 of the findings letter said, “We found that OPS response to reports of sexual assault is often marked by confusion, repetition, and poor investigative practices.” The DOJ does not provide examples to support their statement.

The DOJ also stated on page 11, “[w]omen who are intoxicated are at increased risk of sexual assault, and more than half of all non-stranger sexual assault involves alcohol use by the victim, assailant, or both.” This statement creates problems because it doesn’t present a way for the police department to address the alcohol factor.

The police department needs to patrol the campus community 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Additionally, the department needs to conduct regular police business, calls for service, crime prevention, and order maintenance activities. Addressing alcohol consumption, especially if done by legal adults behind closed doors, might be beyond the call.

How Can Campus Cops Prepare?
Change is knocking at the door of higher education. To address the base issue of sexual assaults, one solution is to form collaborative partnerships with community services organizations who serve victims on the campus and in the community.

To stay out of the government crosshairs it is important to keep a proactive, professional, and well-trained police agency. Keep a watch on the DOJ website and review laws, policies, and procedures that protect both the citizens and employees of the schools. Keep accurate records.

Review the Police Executive Research Forum policy meeting on consent decrees. If your organization falls subject to a DOJ investigation, contact a litigation group that specializes in dealing with consent decrees and federal monitoring to help prepare for the inevitable.

What Does it All Mean?
The lessons for campus law enforcement are not easily parsed from this report. But one is that campus law enforcement officers need to keep up on training so that they can avoid claims of failure to train, much like federal lawsuits that can be filled as set forth by the precedents of Monell v. Department of Social Services (1978) and Canton v. Ohio (1989). If campus police officers are unaware of these two federal cases, it is clearly in incumbent on organizational leadership to make their officers aware of the principles and holdings of these cases.

The second implication may be more important. The federal government is watching, and will be more than likely conducting investigations into campus law enforcement. So these agencies need to keep up with best practices and data relating to crime that occurs on the campus. 

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2023 Police1. All rights reserved.