There are a handful of things that are supposed to happen when a service member reports a sexual assault. First, an investigator with specific training in sexual assault cases should be assigned. Later, a trained special victims prosecutor comes on to the case. But that hasn’t been happening.
A Defense Department inspector general report released Wednesday found that commands have been mishandling these cases on a grand scale. The Air Force, for example, failed to appoint special victims prosecutors in 94 percent of its cases. The Navy failed to comply with that regulation 59 percent of the time, while it was 50 and 30 percent for the Army and Marine Corps, respectively.
“We found that the DoD cannot ensure that all victims of sexual assault are receiving support services available to them,” Sean O’Donnell, the acting DoD IG, said in a release. “We also found that the DoD cannot ensure that all commanders and investigators are making decisions based on the best possible information because of, among other things, inexperienced or untrained prosecutors.”
The report also found issues with investigators properly documenting communications with the investigating and prosecuting teams. Army Criminal Investigation Command blamed its case management system, which doesn’t prompt investigators to document that required information, while the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations said that if communication wasn’t documented, it was an oversight on an investigator’s part.
Many of the issues in the report come down to a dearth of qualified experts throughout the military investigative commands.
Recommendations include ordering reviews in each military department, to figure out what it will require to properly train enough investigators. The IG also recommended standardizing documentation procedures for communications.
The services’ investigative commands generally agreed with recommendations and have taken steps to review their resource needs, though the report says the Army did not address that recommendation in its response, while issuing new guidance for documenting communication.
On the positive side, the report found, services did consistently assign special victims advocates to survivors and provided service members with information about other resources.
As a follow-up, DoD IG announced Wednesday, the office will do a separate evaluation focusing specifically on the military criminal investigative commands’ handling of sexual assault reports.
Army CID is in the middle of a full overhaul, as of this year, following a spate of controversies, that includes appointing a trained, civilian investigator to its top job.
There is a particular spotlight this year on the military’s handling of sexual assault cases in general, as proposed legislation aims to take the prosecution of felonies entirely out of the hands of the chain of command.
At the same time, an independent commission this summer made 82 recommendations to help DoD improve its handling of these cases, a project which the department plans to implement over the better part of the next decade.
Chief among them, which will require a change in law via Congress, is to create an office of prosecutors who specifically handle sexual assault and related crimes. These prosecutors, rather than commanders, will decide whether charges are brought and cases go to trial.
Advocates have argued that trained, civilian prosecutors are crucial to making sure sexual assault cases are handled as thoroughly as possible, as opposed to the under-qualified judge advocates who often end up assigned to them. The IG report shares those concerns.
“For many of the investigations we reviewed, the assigned prosecutor was an inexperienced, junior prosecutor without specialized training in special victim cases, increasing the risk that investigators and commanders may not have received the best legal advice with respect to critical investigative steps and case adjudication decisions,” according to the findings.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Military Times on Wednesday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had not yet read the IG report, but had seen some media coverage. CBS News first reported on the findings Monday.
“We take the issue extremely seriously, and the secretary has made clear that we’ve got to stop kicking the can down the road on this. It’s time for innovative solutions,” Kirby said, adding that, based on the IG’s findings, Austin may consider additional department-level guidance above and beyond what the Pentagon is already working on.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.