WASHINGTON â€“ Senior Defense Department officials 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 â€œinitial disposition authorityâ€ 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.
â€œThe further â€˜northâ€™ you go [in rank] the more attention there is paid to this,â€ the official said. â€œThey get a level of training that somebody at the O-3 level wouldnâ€™t necessarily get.â€
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 victimâ€™s performance in the unit might cause the commander to disbelieve the victimâ€™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 â€œimmediate level of the crime.â€
More senior officers will have â€œa more neutral ability to take a look at the facts â€¦ and make a reasoned decision,â€ 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.
â€œAny suggestion or appearance of retaliation would have to be resolved at the same [higher] level,â€ 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 â€œSpecial Victimâ€™s Unitâ€ 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.