ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Justice Department has launched an investigation into how sexual assault complaints are handled in Missoula, Montana.
As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, news of the inquiry has shocked the town.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: People in Missoula already knew something was up. The University of Montana has been investigating student allegations of rape, and a sexual harassment complaint was filed against the football team in January. But things got a lot more serious yesterday, when the Justice Department said it would investigate the university, local cops and prosecutors, ostensibly for not responding adequately to cases of sexual assault.
Missoula Mayor John Engen appeared shaken.
MAYOR JOHN ENGEN: While I and Chief Muir have no sense that we have failed to do our jobs, I can be proven wrong.
KASTE: The city and university have pledged to cooperate. But at an awkward joint news conference, Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg lashed out at the federal officials standing right next to him.
FRED VAN VALKEBURG: I think this is an overreach by the federal government.
KASTE: He said they wouldn't tell him what exactly he's doing wrong. But he assumes the feds think he should be prosecuting more sexual assault cases.
VALKEBURG: They are essentially sending a message to every local prosecutor in America that they will use their resources to second-guess every decision a local prosecutor makes.
KASTE: It is highly unusual for the Justice Department to investigate decisions made by local prosecutors. Scott Burns is the head of the National District Attorneys Association.
SCOTT BURNS: When you're talking about allegations of sexual assault or sexual abuse cases, they're the hardest. You know, when it's a he-said-she-said, and you don't have DNA or physical evidence, and sometimes you go forward and sometimes you don't.
KASTE: In Missoula, Thomas Perez, of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, acknowledged that it's rare for his agency to review local prosecution decisions, but that doesn't mean it can't.
THOMAS PEREZ: Under the Obama administration, I have pledged that we will enforce the laws and we will enforce all of the laws, and we will do so fairly and independently, and to ensure adequate protection of everyone in the community.
KASTE: The Civil Rights Division has shifted its focus lately, using investigations and the threat of lawsuit to press for reforms at police departments. Now, it seems they have prosecutors in their sights, too.
On the phone after the press conference, a tired-sounding Missoula County attorney said he probably wouldn't fight them on this.
VALKEBURG: It's really a situation where a person is essentially bullied into doing whatever it is they want done, because they have so much power and you have so little.
KASTE: But at the University of Montana, women like Brittany Salley-Rain welcome the federal involvement.
BRITTTANY SALLEY-RAIN: It brings a real gravity to the situation and a seriousness that I think, you know, maybe wasn't present before.
KASTE: The undergraduate helps to run the Women's Resource Center. And she says she hasn't heard complaints about prosecutors dismissing rape allegations. But she says there is a bigger issue of a campus culture that can lead to assault and she hopes the federal investigation will have an effect on that.
Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.