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NCIS struggling with sex-assault caseload

Dec. 18, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
NCIS Director Traver MWM 20131105
Andrew Traver, the new director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, said his agency needs more resources to investigate sexual assaults or the workload could compromise other cases. (Mike Morones/Staff)
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For nearly a year, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service has investigated any and all Navy sexual assaults referred to law enforcement. But some current and former agents say this mounting caseload is straining an agency grappling with budget woes, a burden that top NCIS officials are also reconsidering.

NCIS investigates reports that range from rape to unwanted sexual contact; there were 527 in fiscal 2012, the latest full-year tally available. Many of these are misdemeanor-level crimes — a departure from NCIS’ charter to investigate only felonies. It’s also a sign of the importance the Navy is placing on solving these crimes.

This rule means that NCIS puts the same level of attention into investigating a rape as it does to a sailor groped at a bar, one former agent said.

“NCIS no longer has a threshold for what level of sexual assault allegations will be investigated,” said the former agent, who left NCIS earlier this year, in an email. “Agents are spread very thin because of this.”

Navy leaders talk tough about investigating sexual assaults and locking up perpetrators. And they have made this a top priority for the agency, which is in the process of hiring 54 special agents, many of whom will be tasked with these investigations. Still, the agency may need more resources to handle this caseload long-term.

The caseload grew by 29 percent from fiscal 2011 to 2012 and is expected to jump again when the final statistics come in for 2013. Given those rises and increased pressure from lawmakers, the Pentagon ordered NCIS and the other military criminal investigative agencies to investigate all reported sexual assaults starting last Jan. 25.

“Eventually we’re going to need additional resources to conduct these investigations or there will have to be a redefinition of [sexual assault] so that NCIS can return to working serious felonies,” said NCIS director Andrew Traver in a November interview. “Our charter is to work serious felony crime. So a time will probably need to come where there’s a line drawn and say, ‘OK, if it’s here, then NCIS handles it and if it’s here, then it goes back to the military police investigators.’ ”

That would turn over a substantial portion of the caseload to each command’s law enforcement branch, including masters-at-arms.

Asked whether it was his call to go back to investigating only felonies, Traver said, “That’s a discussion that has to take place at some point.”

A Pentagon spokeswoman said there was no militarywide plan to boost spending for sexual assault investigations and said it was extremely unlikely that the military criminal investigative services, including NCIS, would return to the serious felony standard.

“We have been very, very clear that this crime is not investigated by commanders, it is investigated by professional investigators” with the independent military criminal investigative services, said Army Lt. Col. Cathy Wilkinson, a DoD spokeswoman. “I do not see at any point in any foreseeable future where that would change.”

Traver, who took over as director Oct. 7, stressed there have been no cutbacks to other missions, including counterintelligence and cybersecurity. But he’s heard complaints from his field agents who say they’ve become consumed in the past few years since NCIS began investigating every case. Many assert that these cases are investigated without consideration of their merits or the severity of the alleged offense.

“Field and supervisory agents in crime, CI and fraud have been completely inundated with frivolous [Uniform Code of Military Justice Article] 120 investigations and their primary investigative functions have taken a second seat,” one agent told Navy Times.

Some claim these investigations have been micromanaged by headquarters, mandating lots of checklists and progress reports.

“We have three checklists to adhere by: one from HQ, one from the field office and one for the squad level,” said a second former agent, who separated from the agency this year. This had led to “investigators who are more concerned with checking the boxes to avoid discipline rather than focusing on criminal violations.”

The pressure on NCIS is so severe that agents are investigating implausible or flimsy cases, former agents say. One retired supervisory special agent said that NCIS opened a case after a male reportedly put his finger into a woman’s hair bun — an unwanted gesture that failed to meet the standards to be considered a sexual assault.

A former agent recalled having to investigate a sailor who woke up with memory gaps after a night of binge drinking and couldn’t recall undressing, which led her to the suspicion she had been assaulted.

“Even though this is [in] a foreign country, there’s no physical evidence, there’s no evidence from her, there’s no statements that it occurred, there’s nobody else who stated anybody followed her to the room, we still have to continue a fully fledged investigation and can’t close it down,” said the second former agent, noting that these types of cases are not uncommon. “Or if we do close it down, you almost have to get a canonization from the pope.”

NCIS spokesman Ed Buice took issue with the agent’s characterization of some cases as frivolous, saying, “We don’t rate them before they are investigated, we investigate everything.”

NCIS has had some lapses in investigating sexual assaults. The Pentagon inspector general found that NCIS mishandled 26 of 195 randomly sampled cases from 2010, citing serious mistakes like not interviewing witnesses, not collecting crucial evidence or not conducting a thorough crime scene investigation. NCIS reopened 14 cases, according to the report released in July.

Traver said he was not familiar with the DoD IG’s findings but expressed confidence that NCIS had taken steps to ensure that all investigations are conducted properly.

“I don’t know what kind of an investigation it would be if you don’t interview the victim or the suspect. Obviously, not a very thorough investigation,” he said. “I’m certain that is no longer the case. There have been other safeguards put in place to ensure the integrity and the completeness of the investigations that we conduct.”

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