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Army starts ‘comprehensive’ look at racial disparity in its justice system

An Army assessment began last week to examine racial disparity within its justice system, the service’s judge advocate general said Tuesday during a congressional hearing.

The Army’s own evaluation joins that of the other armed services following the release of a Government Accountability Office report last year that found black or Hispanic service members are more likely to face a trial than their white counterparts.

The Army is in the “very early stages of figuring out what could cause this,” Lt. Gen. Charles Pede, the service’s ranking attorney, told lawmakers.

Pede said he has already directed a “comprehensive assessment” in conjunction with the Army’s provost marshal general “to examine why the justice system is more likely to investigate certain soldiers and what our investigations and command decisions tell us about this issue.”

Tuesday’s hearing also comes amid nationwide scrutiny of racial injustice, sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man who prosecutors say was murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer while being arrested.

The GAO report from last year did note that once service members get to trial, the likelihood of a conviction is nearly the same across all demographic backgrounds, but problems with data collection continue to cloud the issue.

The report “raises difficult questions,” said Pede. “Sitting here today, we do not have those answers, so our task is to ask the right questions and find the answers.”

The GAO report concluded that the Army, Navy and Air Force, have to do a better job of tracking ethnicity and race data in investigations and personnel databases, using the same categories as military justice databases.

In response to questions, Pede acknowledged that the Army does not currently track how each particular commander doles out non-judicial punishments. But that will be a part of the Army’s ongoing assessment, he added.

“How a law enforcement officer reacts at a scene of domestic violence or how a commander disposes of non-judicial punishment, I think this is one of the areas that we’ll look at,” said Pede.

More data on how soldiers are prosecuted based on their race will be gleaned from recent efforts to merge the Army’s law enforcement and JAG Corps databases, according to Pede.

During the hearing, lawmakers pointed to the lack of diversity within the ranks of senior leadership as an issue that impacts the military justice system.

“It took until last week before we could confirm our first African-American service chief,” said Rep. Anthony G. Brown, D-Md., an Army veteran who served in 3rd Infantry Division. “And we still have a military whose 61 four-star flag officers only include two African-American officers among them.”

The push over the past few years by the Army secretary and chief of staff to overhaul their talent management system will hopefully tackle an implicit bias that might be preventing minorities from reaching those ranks, said Pede.

“From a recruiting and promotion perspective, there’s an intense focus right now,” said Pede. The new “information age” talent management system “is designed to get after natural talent and talent that implicit bias might prevent from advancing.”

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