Troops accused of sexual assault may be abruptly reassigned or transferred during a pre-trial investigation, a measure intended to reduce the potential for contact between victims and alleged perpetrators, according to new rules unveiled Thursday by the Pentagon.
It’s one of several in the latest round of changes to the way military sexual assault reports are handled, coming amid mounting pressure from Congress to crack down on sexual predators in the ranks.
The new rules also will require that unrestricted reports of sexual assault, or those in which the victim agrees to cooperate with investigators, be fast-tracked to the desk of a one-star general or flag officer in that chain of command, an effort to improve oversight, official said.
And the Defense Department will begin providing attorneys for alleged victims of sexual assault to represent their interests in any legal proceedings. That aims to address concerns that many victims are wrongly targeted when they admit to low-level misconduct, such as underage drinking or fraternizing, during official statements about their attacks.
Critics of the military’s current system say victims simply do not trust their chain of command to take their reports seriously and to aggressively investigate and punish the offenders.
The Pentagon’s own data lends credence to those critiques. Internal surveys suggested that about 26,000 troops were the victims of unwanted sexual contact last year, yet the number of sexual assaults that are officially reported is less than 3,400, according to the report.
The top brass says these new measures are designed to increase victims’ trust. “We want to increase the number of unrestricted reporting and we can only get that if we work on the trust of the victims,” Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, director of the Joint Staff, said at a new briefing at the Pentagon.
The term “unrestricted reporting” refers to a complete report from a victim who is willing to file a criminal complaint. The military also allows for “restricted reporting” that allows victims to seek medical care and counseling for a sexual assault without triggering a criminal investigation and charges.
Support on Capitol Hill is growing for a proposed law that would strip commanders of their authority to oversee sexual assault cases that occur in their commands and instead create a new military legal office to prosecute offenders.
Supporters of that idea say the current system is flawed because victims may be reluctant to file reports to their own workplace supervisors and commanders may be reluctant to aggressively pursue accusations lodged against troops under their command.
The military brass emphatically opposes the idea, saying it would undermine commanders’ authority and limit their ability to crack down on sexual assaults.
Scaparrotti said the latest changes were made in “collaboration” with Congress.
But one of the military’s toughest critics, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said the new rules still do not go far enough.
“The Pentagon taking action is a good thing, and these are positive steps forward, but it is not the leap forward required to solve the problem. We have heard over and over again from the victims and the top military leadership themselves, there is a lack of trust in the system that has a chilling effect on reporting,” Gillibrand said Thursday.
She has 38 cosponsors for her bill that would strip oversight from commanders.
Other changes announced by the Pentagon include the requirement that pre-trial hearings for troops accused of sexual assault must be overseen by an officer who is a trained attorney.
The DoD Inspector General also will begin routinely evaluating closed sexual assault investigations to ensure proper procedures were followed.
The change that will give commanders the authority to reassign or transfer troops accused of sexual assault came in response to critics who said victims can be traumatized by repeatedly encountering their attackers.
Previous rules allowed commanders to reassign or transfer the victims, but critics say that placed an unfair burden on the victims.
Staff writer Rick Maze contributed to this story.