US military's new tactic to curtail sexual assaults: nab serial 'predators'

To combat sexual assaults, military officials shift tactics to focus on ferreting out serial predators. Here's why they're increasingly convinced that relatively few people in the ranks commit the bulk of such crimes.

Glenn Fawcett/Department of Defense/AP
Then-Air Force Chief of Safety, Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward, briefs media gathered at the Pentagon in Washington Nov. 14, 2012. Some perpetrators have dozens, sometimes hundreds, of victims in a lifetime, says Woodward, citing studies by psychologists who are now doing consulting work with the Pentagon.

The Pentagon, under pressure to show progress on bringing down rates of sexual assault, is putting new emphasis on ferreting out serial predators within the ranks, as military officials become increasingly convinced that relatively few people are responsible for the bulk of sex crimes.

The new direction is being driven by anecdotal experiences of some commanders, as well as by research showing that in certain semi-closed settings – such as college campuses – as many as 90 percent of sexual assaults are committed by serial offenders.

“We think it tends to be, more often than we’ve believed before, ‘serial predators’ with more than one victim,” retired Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward, who earlier this month left her post as director of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said in an interview. “If you get rid of just one of these predators, it’s pretty significant.”

Some perpetrators have dozens, sometimes hundreds, of victims in a lifetime, says Woodward, citing studies by psychologists who are now doing consulting work with the Pentagon. The military has long been lambasted for failing to address reports of rising sexual assault within the ranks, coming under criticism in documentary films, from members of Congress, and from victims advocacy groups.

Military officials hope the new focus on serial perpetrators will result in some breakthroughs that blunt and then begin to bring down rates of sexual crimes. This necessarily involves a revamped approach – one that turns away from education campaigns that caution potential victims to use the “buddy system” or to dress conservatively on nights out, and more toward aggressive investigation of suspects in order to find other possible victims and help resolve 'he said, she said' claims.

This is important because the latest research finds that most sexual assaults are not simply a result of "mixed signals" stemming from, say, an evening of heavy drinking. “Understanding and accepting that [idea of serial perpetrators] make people understand that ‘he didn’t just drink a little too much,’ ” says Woodward.

The emphasis on predators, however, is a tricky about-face for the military. For starters, it makes many service members squirm, because it strikes at the cohesiveness that is the foundation of military culture.

“Here is one of the ‘for real,’ difficult aspects for those of us in the military to accept – that people we know, trust with our lives, that we’ve trained with and would go to war with if we had to – are capable of doing things we hate,” says Col. S. Clinton Hinote, commander of the Eighth Fighter Wing at Kusan Air Force Base in South Korea. “And yet it’s obviously true.”

Hinote acknowledges that he, too, at first resisted this idea, until some command experiences changed his mind. That’s why one of his first priorities upon taking command last year at the US air base in South Korea, he says, was to probe about attitudes on base regarding the crime.

“I asked several people about the climate regarding sexual assault at Kusan. I was told that it’s a special place with lots of great camaraderie, where everyone treats everyone like family and it’s not a big problem,” Hinote recalls in a phone interview. “What I found was a little bit different.”

What he found, to be precise, were 86 allegations of sexual assault in the previous seven years on a base of some 2,400 people.

“I got to tell you, that’s a problem for me,” Hinote says. The assurances that all was well, in the face of 11 or 12 assault reports each year on average, struck him as a situation akin to “an alcoholic who never seeks help until they acknowledge that they’re an alcoholic.

“You have to acknowledge you have a problem,” he says. “Otherwise how could you know you need to seek help?”

Evidence of a problem is increasingly irrefutable, say US lawmakers and victims’ advocates. A recent Associated Press investigation details the military’s mishandling of more than 1,000 alleged sex crimes among US troops stationed in Japan. What’s more, the Pentagon’s own reports make clear that sex crimes are vastly underreported in the military in part because victims have little faith that perpetrators will be caught and prosecuted.

Such reports have prompted hot debate in the US Senate over whether commanders should retain their authority to oversee military sexual assault prosecutions. Legislation proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York would remove such cases from that chain of command, on grounds that military officials too often undermine the justice process because such allegations make units look undisciplined – which never reflects well on commanders. 

The problem with commanders is not universal, but it does crop up, says David Lisak, a clinical psychologist who trains prosecutors and consults for the Pentagon. “You have some commanders who really get it and are earnestly doing whatever they can – whether it’s on the judicial side or the prevention side,” he says. “And then you’ve got commanders who don’t get it and in some cases undermine progress.” 

Lawmakers such as Senator Gillibrand have also expressed concern about the “good soldier” defense – that an accused perpetrator excels at his job and is liked by his colleagues, so how could he do such a thing?

Hinote was forced to confront that issue at a previous command, when he was a vice wing commander – the No. 2 leader – and uncovered what he calls a “true predator” on the base.

“He was absolutely charming, well-liked, and respected throughout his squadron,” Hinote recalls. “The first thing people said when the allegation came out was, ‘not him.’ ”

Yet this particular serial perpetrator, commanders later learned, “had figured out a way to isolate young vulnerable airmen in a warehouse by having them do additional duties with him alone,” Hinote says. “He scoped out these victims, isolated the ones that were most vulnerable, and didn’t act until he was likely to get away with it.”

Hinote says he felt a crushing sense of responsibility for what had happened. “He had assaulted multiple airmen that I felt responsible for,” he says. “I felt like I’d personally let those airmen down.” 

Pioneering research showing that the vast majority of sexual assaults on college campuses – more than 90 percent – are perpetrated by serial offenders led investigators to expand their inquiries beyond the one victim who had come forward, Hinote recounts.

“We started asking around to see if other females in the squadron were affected” – and they were, he says. The command prosecuted the predator, who was convicted. “But I felt I needed to do more,” says Hinote. “That’s when I got passionate about this.”

Since then, Hinote has applied his experience at Kusan AFB. He began by setting up 86 tripods with a helmet and a placard on each one – one for each of the sexual assaults that had been reported over seven years – along a quarter-mile track on the base. On each placard: a brief outline of the assault. Then, during the course of the morning, Hinote had six commanders bring in as many as 500 people at a time to walk, single-file, past the tripods. (Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had declared a “stand down” that day for commanders to focus on sexual assault.)

“I’ve never had anyone do the walk and then say sexual assault wasn’t a problem at Kusan,” Hinote notes.

Cultivating an appreciation of the scope of the problem is a first step, but how does the military plan to catch predators?

Today, military law enforcement officers investigating sexual assault crimes are increasingly being trained to dig into the history of the accused, rather than mainly into how the alleged victim behaved in the hours before the alleged assault.

“Obviously you’re going to investigate the incident, but we need to investigate the alleged offender, too,” Dr. Lisak says. “Are there any other victims?”

One measure of success in the military’s handling of sexual assault cases will be better-quality investigations, says Anne Munch, a former prosecutor and consultant to the US military.

In this regard, Hinote says he is seeing progress at Kusan air base.

“The biggest thing I’ve seen in our investigators is going from a bias toward investigating the victim,” he says. “If you go into the case with the mind-set that false allegations are rare but [that] perpetrators will perpetrate more than one crime – now that’s power. You may actually find incidents in the perpetrator’s past. It’s easier to prove five assaults than one.” 

The shift toward digging harder into the backgrounds of sex-crime suspects may in turn put less emphasis on potential victims and their behavior.

“For many years, the way we tried to combat sexual assault was we taught our potential victims to be ‘harder targets,’ if you want to call it that,” Hinote says. The admonishments were never to walk alone, always to have a buddy, don’t get drunk, don’t go out with people you don’t trust, or don’t wear provocative clothing.

“Some of these are unwritten rules, but everyone knows the rules,” Hinote says. The problem “is that if a victim violates one of these unwritten rules and comes forward, there is a possibility that someone might say, ‘Well, what were you wearing? Were you drunk? Did you go out without a buddy? Did you have a plan for getting home?

“This can pretty quickly transform into victim-blaming,” he adds. 

If investigators find other victims, “that will bolster credibility in a ‘he said, she said’ scenario,” notes the Air Force’s Woodward.

This can be important because serial predators tend to focus on victims who may have had disciplinary problems in the past, knowing that their credibility is lower, she notes.

“They may also prey upon people who have been assaulted before, as a result of what trauma can do to boundaries and vulnerabilities,” Woodward adds. “Unfortunately, predators are very good.” 

The question in the months and years to come, then, is how precisely will the Pentagon determine whether its efforts are having a positive effect, advocates for victims say. 

One indicator will be when military training highlights the consequences to the perpetrator, rather than assault-prevention strategies for potential victims, says Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women’s Action Network.

“Up until three years ago, female troops going to Iraq were still getting rape whistles,” he notes. “What hasn’t been addressed by DOD is that there is no training going on right now that highlights the cost of the crime, or what will happen to you if you decide to make this choice.”

To this end, some military units are starting to publicize the results of their sex crimes trials, to make it clear that “there are consequences when you do this kind of stuff,” Mr. Jacob says.

When new Department of Defense sexual assault surveys are released and reports of sexual assaults go up, for example, Pentagon officials tend to say that it’s actually a good thing, because it means victims are feeling more comfortable coming forward.

Currently, fewer than 20 percent of victims report a sexual assault crime within the military, according to Pentagon studies. “There’s a huge gap, so in wanting to see the reports coming down, I think it’s going to take a while before you get to that stage,” Woodward says.

Advocates for victims generally agree. But at what point, ask lawmakers and others monitoring the Pentagon’s progress on sexual assault, should the reports of sexual assault start to decrease?

That, defense officials say, is the question with which the military continues to grapple.

Back at Kusan, “I can say with 100 percent certainty that the reports of sexual assault are increasing,” Hinote adds. “Now, is that good or bad? Well, we don’t know, and that’s the honest answer.”

As for future goals, he offers an analogy. In the early days of military flying, accidents happened every day. Today they are rare. 

“Victory looks like a sexual assault that is as rare as an aircraft accident,” Hinote says. “And we’re going to get there one day.” 

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