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In an effort to improve military sexual assault investigations and prosecutions, every service will set up its own "special victims unit," or SVU, and send all rape and aggravated sexual assault cases to a special court-martial, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey announced.
At a Capitol Hill news conference late Monday afternoon, Panetta said the SVU in each service will develop expertise in recognizing behavior patterns of sexual predators, collecting evidence and interviewing sexual assault victims.
The Army was the first service to develop a special investigation unit within its criminal investigation organization. All Army SVU investigators learn about "forensic experiential trauma" methods for interviewing victims, as well as tactics frequently used by serial rapists, who, according to some studies, account for the vast majority of rapes.
This year, the Army won prosecutions in more than 70 percent of completed court-martial cases. According to a Military Times analysis of cases listed in the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response report released last week, none of the other services won sex-crime convictions for more than 40 percent of the cases where commanders chose to pursue court-martial charges.
Panetta said that requiring all accusations of attempted or completed rape, sexual assault and forcible sodomy to be handled by a special court-martial convening authority at the colonel or Navy captain level will increase commanders' accountability for taking sexual assault seriously.
"At the local unit level, sometimes these matters are put aside and not followed up," Panetta said. "We continue to emphasize that all commanders have to exercise good discipline and take control … but most importantly we are assured that at a higher command level we will have action taken with regard to the complaints that have been made."
The Pentagon rolled out several other initiatives to strengthen sexual assault prevention, including:
• A requirement that new recruits be briefed on sexual assault policy in their first two weeks of service.
• Records of disciplinary proceedings for sex crimes will be kept in a central repository.
• Commanders will conduct annual organizational climate assessments.
• More publicity will be given to the Pentagon's 24-hour "Safe Helpline."
• More training on sexual assault prevention for commanders.
• National Guard and Reserve troops who report a sexual assault will be kept on active duty so they can get the help they need.
However, Panetta stressed that prosecution and conviction of sex offenders is the centerpiece of the Defense Department's strategy.
"The most important thing we can do is prosecute the offenders, deal with those that have broken the law and committed this crime," he said. "If we can do that, then we can begin to deal with this issue — not only prosecute those involved, but more importantly send a signal that this is not a problem that we are going to ignore in the United States military."
Panetta said he intends to elevate cases to special court-martial convening authority through executive order within the next few days. The remaining changes will have to be made through legislation, most likely the 2013 defense authorization bill.
"We've been hard at it for several years trying to make a difference, and we haven't been able to," Dempsey said, adding that the Joint Chiefs are closing ranks behind Panetta, in collaboration with lawmakers, "to actually make a difference" in addressing sexual assault in the military.