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A Defense Department Inspector General report released this month revealed “significant deficiencies” in more than one in 10 Air Force sexual assault investigations. In some instances, key evidence was not collected or investigators failed to thoroughly examine crime scenes or interview witnesses, actions that may have impacted the outcome of a case.
The review of 501 military sexual assault cases from 2010 — 146 of them Air Force — found about eight in 10 investigations had some deficiency. But most were minor, and investigations met Defense Department standards about 90 percent of the time.
The IG report also highlighted the rarity of court-martial convictions in sexual assault cases: less than 8 percent of the random sampling examined by the investigative agency. No action was taken against alleged offenders one-third of the time. A handful of perpetrators were discharged from the service in lieu of a trial, including six airmen.
The report comes as the military beefs up sexual assault awareness and prevention efforts. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered all the services to spend one day refocusing on training after a May report revealed 26,000 men and women in uniform said they had experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact in 2012.
Critics of the military’s handling of sexual assault say victims are often retaliated against while offenders go free, citing a culture that has led to under-reporting of the crime.
In February, an Air Force three-star general overturned the sex assault conviction of a lieutenant colonel, setting off a firestorm that has led to the introduction of laws in the House and Senate limiting a commander’s authority in sex crime cases. At least 33 Senators have backed bipartisan legislation that would create a separate military command to handle serious crimes, removing the process from the chain of command.
The Air Force has responded to calls from Congress and victim advocacy groups to hold offenders accountable. Involuntary discharge proceedings became automatic July 2 for any airman found to have committed or attempted to commit rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy, aggravated sexual contact and abusive sexual contact, according to a new Air Force instruction. That includes airmen convicted at court-martial or whose cases were handled administratively, such as an Article 15 hearing.
Commanders may also now recommend for discharge airmen who use a special position of trust to engage in an unprofessional relationship. That includes recruiters, military training instructors and faculty and staff members. Airmen recommended for involuntary discharge within 12 months of making an unrestricted sexual assault report also can now elect to have their case file reviewed by a general officer in the chain of command.
Cases sent back for review
The IG found serious investigative gaps in 56 cases — about 11 percent of those reviewed.
Air Force reports of investigation “often lacked basic case information such as date, time, location of occurrence and offenses under investigation,” according to the Inspector General. In one report, a victim stated she had been attacked in her home but did not say where her home was and “it was not documented anywhere in the report or supporting file.”
The IG sent 17 cases back to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations for reconsideration. OSI agreed to reopen 10 of those. It declined to reopen the remaining seven because too much time had elapsed or further investigation would not likely produce a different outcome; the inspector general agreed.
Of the 146 Air Force cases examined by the IG, investigators did not:
■ Follow up on logical leads from interviews in 35 cases
■ Examine or validate crime scenes in 53 cases
■ Photograph the crime scene in 71 investigations — or half of those reviewed by the IG.
■ Notify the sexual assault response coordinator in about a third of the cases.
The IG recommended the Air Force create crime scene policy guidance, emphasize the importance of timely and thorough sex assault investigations, and beef up interview and evidence training.
Many of those changes are already underway, according to the OSI’s written response to the report. OSI commander Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Jacobsen has made sexual assault a special interest item for more than a year. Investigations now receive “significant, ongoing, high-level attention across the command,” with Jacobsen emphasizing their importance at leadership forums and commander calls, according to the response.
In August 2012, OSI began teaching a new interviewing technique as part of its advanced sex crimes investigations training program course to “empower sex crime victims and improve their ability to provide more detailed information,” the report said.
All crime scenes must now be located and documented whenever possible. “The numerous recent improvements … are improving the quality and professionalism of AFOSI’s sexual assault investigations,” the Air Force wrote.