A top Air Force commander told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that officials have failed to establish sufficient discipline leading to the sex scandal at the Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio in which nearly 60 women have been identified as victims of sexual assault.
Host Carmen Russell-Sluchansky spoke with Victor Hansen, a professor of criminal law, criminal procedure, evidence and prosecutorial ethics at New England Law in Boston, to discuss the story. Before joining the New England Law faculty in 2005, he served a 20-year career in the Army, most of that time as a JAG Corps officer.
In 2011 there were more than 2300 reported cases of sexual assault in the military. Does this number seem right? In your time as Judge Advocate-General Corps Officer you had to see a lot of these cases.
There are a lot of these cases taking place. That’s a frequent kind of crime to occur in the military. But I think it does represent an underreporting. Actually studies indicate that the number could be unreported by as much as 15,000-20,000 a year. And, of course, this underreporting phenomenon is not unique in the military. The same issues come up in the civilian context as well, but certainly, given the context of the military environment, these crimes are particularly problematic and underreporting is also pretty problematic.
I’ve read some complaints and lawsuits – there’s an issue when people are trying to bring up these cases. Sometimes they’re not taken seriously. I’ve heard about cases in which a judge actually told the complaint that there were a lot of penalties for making a false accusation. How easy is it to actually bring up these cases?
The military is making it easier. But it’s hard. The problem with underreporting and failure to prosecute these cases appropriately occurs because there hasn’t been a lot of training for the appreciation of women. And it must be clear – when victims come forward, they don’t always find a very receptive ear, a much more skeptical ear perhaps than when they’re victims of other types of crimes. That’s why these cases are difficult and complicated to investigate and prosecute. I think it has been a traditional approach – to meet these allegations with some high degree of skepticism which obviously has a damping effect on the victims. They know that they’re going to be doubted. They think twice before bringing up these issues. I’ve got to say that for several years the military has tried to focus on this problem and to better train the criminal investigators, the prosecutors, the commanders who have to deal with these issues to be more sensitive to these concerns. But it’s an ongoing problem. Again, it’s not unique to the military. The problem arises in various contexts as well. At the police stations these cases are also met with skepticism, and it has the same effect on reporting. The military is trying to change things, but it’s not easy.
Do you get a sense that they’re making any progress in that regards?
I was at the conference a couple of weeks ago to discuss this issue. Some of the numbers show that they’ve got more reports than in previous years. That can’t be a good thing! But the military is saying that it is a good thing! They say that these crimes were happening in the past as well, but they weren’t being reported. So I think there’s some progress being made. Where I see the most progress, frankly, is once these cases are reported, the sophistication of investigators and prosecutors has improved. They go through better training, they bring in experts with experience to deal with this kind of issues. I think there’s been some progress made there, but I think there’s still a long way to go. And Lackland situation clearly demonstrates that the military is by no way close to solving this problem.
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