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Navy's sex-assault prevention plan includes barracks inspections

Jul. 24, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Christopher Yates
A petty officer first class talks to sailors about drinking at a rooftop spa high above an on-base residence in San Diego. Such interactions will become common in barracks fleetwide under new rules — this one was part of a San Diego-based pilot program. (Lenny Ignelzi / The Associated Press)
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Think you spend enough time with chiefs and officers at work? Starting now, one of them will be present in your barracks to catch misbehavior — or worse.

Think you spend enough time with chiefs and officers at work? Starting now, one of them will be present in your barracks to catch misbehavior — or worse.

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Think you spend enough time with chiefs and officers at work? Starting now, one of them will be present in your barracks to catch misbehavior — or worse.

By Oct. 1, each barracks will be patrolled by a team of petty officers first class that’s led by a chief or lieutenant — part of the Navy’s latest push to reduce sexual assaults that also includes hiring 50 more Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents to investigate incidents, stopping on-base booze sales at 10 p.m. and providing more transparency for the outcome of court-martials.

On July 22, the Navy started publicizing the verdicts of all special and general court-martials, including sex-assault cases, on its official homepage, but it is stopping short of posting names of those charged — so the posting does not affect appeals, officials said.

“This department is committed to using all available resources to prevent this crime, aggressively investigate allegations and prosecute as appropriate,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a July 18 statement announcing the changes. “We will not hide from this challenge — we will be active, open and transparent.”

The effort is the latest drive to show offenders will be punished, which victim advocates and officials believe is central to stemming the tide of sex assaults. But the push must contend with a stark reality: No one was punished in about three of every four Navy cases closed in the latest fiscal year.

Of the 501 cases closed in fiscal 2012, only 99 cases went to court-martial and only 27 were handled via nonjudicial punishment, according to a Defense Department report released May 7.

No names, no transparency?

The court-martial list includes details for each case such as the type of court-martial, rank of the accused, the crime in question, where the case was held and the verdict.

But some are skeptical that releasing court-martial verdicts will prove a deterrent without disclosing names. Officials say the main point is to have a more transparent naval justice system that sailors can trust to come forward.

“The goal here was to show that the judicial process works, that these cases are going to trial and they are being dealt with,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Navy’s chief of information. “We have heard, again anecdotally, that some victims express some concerns about the names being out there because they don’t want the offender to get any more attention.”

Investigations also may need work. Of a random sampling of 195 cases from 2010, NCIS mishandled 26 of them, or 13 percent, making serious mistakes like not completing a crime scene investigation, not collecting key evidence or not interviewing witnesses, according to a Pentagon Inspector General report issued July 15. NCIS reopened 14 of the cases, according to the report.

Barracks patrols, booze

Navy leaders say the barracks patrols have dropped sexual assaults by as much as 63 percent since they were first instituted two years ago at Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill. A similar pilot started recently in San Diego.

“A lot of this is about education but it’s also about trying to change their personal behavior,” said Rear Adm. Ted Carter, who until recently was head of the 21st Century Sailor office that oversees the latest counter-sex assault initiative.

Carter said the rovers would be there to watch for “anything that would be unusual,” such as drunkenness, a passed-out sailor, or a large gathering. “Just having that security there will help keep everybody in line,” Carter explained in a recent interview.

The Navy’s sexual assault experts are unsure exactly why the pilots worked, but they’ve decided the dramatic gains are important enough to try everywhere to stem the mounting toll of sexual assaults that concerns lawmakers and the public. Sailors reported 773 assaults during fiscal year 2012 — a 33 percent jump over the previous year.

Top personnel officials attribute the rise in incidents to sailors reporting assaults from fiscal 2012 and previous years, which they view as evidence that the Navy’s full-court press for prevention training is encouraging victims to come forward. Nonetheless, the brass is concerned.

The “overwhelming majority of both victims and offenders are junior sailors, both male and female,” said Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mark Ferguson, in a July 9 message to all admirals and commanding officers. Most of the incidents occurred after the work day and involved alcohol; half take place on base or aboard ship.

“Sexual assault ruins lives, divides teams and erodes trust,” Ferguson said in his “personal for” message. “As leaders, we must provide our sailors a responsible, professional, and safe environment in which to work and live.”

Similar to college dorms, barracks will be required to have resident advisers, or RAs, to mentor and keep the peace. RAs must be first classes or above and will be trained in preventing sex assaults.

As part of the San Diego pilot, chiefs and junior officers also patrolled on-base clubs, bowling alleys and theaters that off-duty sailors frequent. There was no mention of these patrols in NAVADMIN 181/13, released July 18, and Carter emphasized that there would be no shore patrol stood up.

But leaders are encouraging bases to engage with bars and restaurants, asking those businesses to report when a sailor is in trouble so shipmates can intervene before an assault or arrest.

“What we’re advocating there is to have a community outreach, where we are talking to restaurant owners and the most popular bars and make sure that those owners are willing to work with us to say when somebody is in troubled waters,” Carter said. “We’re not advocating that we’re going to put sailors in uniform walking the streets of Milwaukee or Norfolk.”

So far, these efforts have broken up underage drinking and removed civilians from barracks, the director of the Navy’s sexual assault prevention office said recently. Great Lakes extended its outreach to nearby hotels.

Booze restrictions

The effort also centers on alcohol abuse. Booze is a factor in more than half of all sexual assaults, officials say.

The breath tests now conducted randomly fleetwide make up one phase of the Navy’s war on alcohol abuse. The latest phase is restricting where alcohol is sold.

Navy leaders have issued a host of restrictions on the sale of alcohol, including prohibiting its sale after 10 p.m., which must take effect by mid-October per a July 18 instruction. Navy exchanges sold $194 million of alcoholic beverages in fiscal 2012.

Mini-marts will no longer be able to sell distilled spirits, such as tequila or vodka. Alcohol and related sales displays, like neon signs or life-size cutouts, must take up less than a tenth of an exchange’s retail floor space. And stores will sell $1.99 single-use alcohol detection devices that sailors could use to find out, for example, how three beers affects their blood-alcohol level. These rules, however, do not affect alcohol sales on base at All Hands Clubs, O-Clubs, and other Morale, Welfare and Recreation-run venues, Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Sarah Flaherty said.

In addition, there will be greater scrutiny on command climate surveys to detect commands where sailors feel their chain of command doesn’t support victims. Commanding officers must report their command’s climate survey to their bosses. These surveys ask sailors whether they feel their command supports victims in coming forward and quiz them on certain social situations, such as when or if they should step in when a senior sailor appears to be giving undue attention to a junior sailor at a bar.

Another objective is to hire as many as 30 civilian “resiliency counselors,” who will deploy on carriers and big-deck amphibs and will be able to process sex-assault reports outside of the normal chain of command and assist victims. NCIS also is developing a plan to hire more investigators to handle these cases. Boosting the number of convictions is crucial to stemming the sexual assault crisis, victim advocates and officials believe.

“Victims of sexual assault must be assured that they will be supported, they will be provided options ... and their allegations will be investigated, and that offenders held appropriately accountable,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert said in the July 18 message.

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