Sexual assault reports in military are up 40%

Spike linked to programs that encourage victims to come forward

March 17, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

The number of reported sexual assaults in the military increased by almost 40 percent in 2005, although the spike might be due to newly implemented Pentagon programs that make reporting assault easier and more confidential for victims, according to a Defense Department report released yesterday.

There were 2,374 reported sexual assaults involving military service members last year, the report said, up 674 from 2004, when the Defense Department began tallying them under congressional mandate.

About half the increase came from a new policy that permits sexual assault victims to report an incident without prompting a criminal investigation, allowing them to take advantage of medical and counseling opportunities. The military received 435 "restricted" reports beginning June 14, although 108 of those were subsequently changed at the victims' request to "unrestricted reports," which are investigated by authorities. Officials said the numbers might have been higher if the restricted reporting program began earlier.

"One sexual assault is too many," said Dr. Kay Whitley, deputy director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, which has coordinated sexual assault reforms at the Pentagon since 2003. "The fact that the numbers are up to us is an indication that our program is up and our program is working. We're on track."

Whitley added that the numbers are likely to continue increasing, not because of an increase in assaults, but because the programs to encourage reporting are working.

Other reasons for the spike include an Army policy change whereby reports deemed unsubstantiated are counted in the overall total. In prior years, the Army would investigate allegations before counting them, ruling out some reports, a common practice in the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program, the report said.

The 2005 Defense Authorization Act, which requires the Pentagon to provide an annual summary of sexual assault reports, was passed after a scandal at the U.S. Air Force Academy in which cadets complained that rape allegations often went ignored by senior commanders. The fallout from that scandal eventually prompted the Defense Department to evaluate how sexual assault allegations are handled across the military services.

The report detailed many of the reforms implemented in recent years, including the establishment of sexual assault response offices at all major U.S. bases, training and education programs conducted throughout the careers of those who serve, and new protocols to ensure "a consistent level of care and support for victims of sexual assault."

About two-thirds of the 2,047 "unrestricted" reports were investigated, and the remaining third are pending, the report said. Punitive action was taken in 274 cases, including 79 by court-martial, 91 by nonjudicial punishment and 104 through administrative punishment, such as a military discharge. About half of the 1,386 cases investigated were deemed unsubstantiated, and final action against some offenders was being processed in 352 cases.

"We're very proud of the strides that we have made toward this issue," Whitley said. "Rape is one of the most underreported crimes in society, so we assume it's also one of the most underreported crimes in the military."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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