Navy's sexual assault number goes up. Better reporting?

Sexual assaults reported in the Navy increased by 50 percent over last year. Officials say that's because training and awareness programs have helped make sailors more willing to report such assaults.

Steve Helber/AP
Rear Adm. Sean Buck, right, speaks with Senior Chief, Claudia Seawright, of New York City, after he addressed a Sexual Assault Response Coordinators Annual Training seminar at Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Va., Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013.

Senior military officials endeavored to put a positive spin on the news this week that the number of sexual assaults reported in the Navy increased by 50 percent over last year.

It is a sign, they say, of the growing comfort with which sailors are reporting sexual assaults within their ranks.

“What we’re trying to do is close that gap between anonymous surveys where sailors say that they’ve been victims of sexual assault in their past to those sailors that actually come forward to report,” Rear Adm. Sean Buck, the Navy’s top sexual assault prevention and response coordinator, told reporters. 

“The initial goal is to close that gap to where the number of reports actually equal the number of survey responses – and then ultimately to have both of those numbers decline down to zero,” Adm. Buck said.

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The Navy released the figures at a training conference for the service’s sexual assault response coordinators in Norfolk, Va. 

The conference comes in the wake of efforts throughout the force to bring down the levels of sexual assault within the US military

A Pentagon report released in May found that while 26,000 US troops reported having been sexually assaulted the previous year, only 2,949 had come forward to report the crime.

Often, this is because victims do not believe that reporting the assault will result in any punishment for the perpetrator, according to previous military surveys.

In an effort to increase the rates of prosecution and encourage victims of sexual assault to come forward, the Air Force in January launched a pilot program to provide lawyers to help victims who chose to go forward with a case navigate the military justice system.

The move was controversial, however. Military prosecutors represent the services, rather than the victim. Defense attorneys represent the accused. To have a lawyer looking out for the interests of the victim would create a situation in which it was two against one.

Some Air Force judges refused to allow the lawyers, known as Special Victims Counsels (SVC), in their courtroom.

But a key ruling in July by the Court of Criminal Appeals for the Armed Forces overturned a trial judge’s ruling. 

Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, the Air Force’s top lawyer, called the ruling “a very strong decision in support of victims’ rights, and very helpful in supporting the Air Force’s SVC program.”

The ruling was “hugely significant, both for the current SVC program and for the future of similar programs in other branches of the military,” says Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute and a clinical professor of law at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made a decision to adopt the program throughout all of the services last month.

The Navy has made its own policy changes, announcing in August, for example, that it would ban the sale of alcohol at 24-hour base gas stations and convenience stores between the hours of 10pm and 6am.

Alcohol is a common denominator in many sexual assaults. In a recent Navy survey, 55 percent of women reported that their offender had been drinking before the assault.

Ultimately, the US military knows that the actual incidents of sexual assaults need to decrease, particularly as congressional scrutiny increases. 

Defense officials are asking for more time to get the numbers down. Whether lawmakers will give it to them – or proceed with legislation – is another matter.

“We would like that needle to move tomorrow – or this afternoon,” Rear Adm. Buck said. “But the sense is you need to be able to allow some programs to be put into place to mature, to be talked about, and to be acted upon.” 

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