Officials Explain New Sexual Assault Policies

WASHINGTON, April 23, 2012 — Senior Defense Depart­ment offi­cials today said they hope more ser­vice mem­bers who are vic­tims of sex­u­al assault report the crimes as a result of a pol­i­cy change Defense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panet­ta announced last week.

Panet­ta issued guid­ance April 20 with­hold­ing “ini­tial dis­po­si­tion author­i­ty” from any offi­cer who is below the O‑6 — colonel or Navy cap­tain — lev­el and who does not hold spe­cial court-mar­tial con­ven­ing author­i­ty. In oth­er words, unit com­man­ders at the com­pa­ny or squadron lev­el no longer have author­i­ty to decide whether to take fur­ther action in report­ed cas­es of attempt­ed rape, forcible sodomy or sex­u­al assault.

In announc­ing the new pol­i­cy, the sec­re­tary said the change will ensure that sex­u­al assault cas­es receive high-lev­el atten­tion.

A senior defense offi­cial told reporters today dur­ing a back­ground brief­ing that the new pol­i­cy will allow more expe­ri­enced and less par­tial offi­cers to make the ini­tial deci­sion on whether a sex­u­al assault case goes to tri­al. That will add con­sis­ten­cy to how such cas­es are han­dled, the offi­cial added.

“The fur­ther ’north’ you go [in rank] the more atten­tion there is paid to this,” the offi­cial said. “They get a lev­el of train­ing that some­body at the O‑3 lev­el would­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly get.”

The defense offi­cial cit­ed a hypo­thet­i­cal case in which an alleged attack­er and vic­tim belong to the same com­pa­ny-lev­el unit of about 115 enlist­ed peo­ple and five offi­cers work­ing for the same Army cap­tain or Navy lieu­tenant com­man­der.

In the past, the offi­cial said, a vic­tim in that unit might choose not to report an assault because the com­man­der liked the alleged attack­er more, or because the victim’s per­for­mance in the unit might cause the com­man­der to dis­be­lieve the victim’s report. Now, that unit com­man­der must for­ward such reports up the chain of com­mand to a colonel-lev­el spe­cial court-mar­tial con­ven­ing author­i­ty.

A Joint Staff offi­cial told reporters, also on back­ground, that the new pol­i­cy is intend­ed in part to remove deci­sions from the “imme­di­ate lev­el of the crime.”

More senior offi­cers will have “a more neu­tral abil­i­ty to take a look at the facts … and make a rea­soned deci­sion,” the Joint Staff offi­cial said.

The change also means that offi­cers mak­ing future dis­po­si­tion deci­sions typ­i­cal­ly will have legal and med­ical staff mem­bers who can assist in deter­min­ing prop­er han­dling of the case, the defense offi­cial said. The new pol­i­cy also applies to any asso­ci­at­ed charges relat­ed to an alleged assault, the offi­cial added.

“Any sug­ges­tion or appear­ance of retal­i­a­tion would have to be resolved at the same [high­er] lev­el,” the offi­cial said.

The offi­cial not­ed there are sev­er­al prece­dents for the with­hold­ing pol­i­cy. A sim­i­lar approach — plac­ing author­i­ty for case dis­po­si­tion under the Uni­form Code of Mil­i­tary Jus­tice with more senior offi­cers — typ­i­cal­ly applies in cas­es of offi­cer mis­con­duct, cas­es with nation­al secu­ri­ty inter­est or in alleged mis­con­duct by civil­ians accom­pa­ny­ing the force, the offi­cial said.

The offi­cial said Panet­ta has direct­ed that oth­er new poli­cies also take effect:

— Estab­lish­ing “Spe­cial Victim’s Unit” capa­bil­i­ties with­in each of the ser­vices, to ensure that spe­cial­ly trained inves­ti­ga­tors, pros­e­cu­tors and vic­tim-wit­ness assis­tance per­son­nel are avail­able to assist with sex­u­al assault cas­es;

— Requir­ing that sex­u­al assault poli­cies be explained to all ser­vice mem­bers with­in 14 days of their entrance on active duty;

— Allow­ing reserve and Nation­al Guard mem­bers who have been sex­u­al­ly assault­ed while on active duty to remain in their active-duty sta­tus to obtain the treat­ment and sup­port afford­ed to active-duty mem­bers;

— Requir­ing a record of the out­come of dis­ci­pli­nary and admin­is­tra­tive pro­ceed­ings relat­ed to sex­u­al assault, and requir­ing that copies of those records be cen­tral­ly retained;

— Requir­ing annu­al orga­ni­za­tion­al cli­mate assess­ments; and

— Man­dat­ing wider pub­lic dis­sem­i­na­tion of DOD resources, includ­ing the DOD Safe Helpline, a free, anony­mous and con­fi­den­tial resource that can be reached world­wide, 24 hours a day, to con­nect vic­tims with live sex­u­al assault sup­port pro­fes­sion­als.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)