MPs change approach to sexual assault investigations
May 17, 2012
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. -- Brenda had known Tom for years. He was always willing to help with mechanical issues or heavy lifting when her husband was in the field or on deployment. Tom seemed like an ideal neighbor. Brenda would never have imagined she would be a victim of sexual assault at the hands of her trusted friend -- Tom.
While the characters in the story are fictional, sexual assault in the military -- whether it happens downrange or on American soil, whether it is a service member against a service member or a service member against a civilian -- is a very real issue.
Russell Strand, U.S. Army Military Police School Family Advocacy Law Enforcement Training Division chief, said over the past seven years, the military has made dramatic changes in how they conduct sexual assault investigations. These changes are making progress in helping victims and holding offenders accountable.
In 2005, the Army recognized the need for personnel with specialized training to deal with sexual assault cases. Since that time, CID Special Agents have received specialized sexual assault investigations training. In 2009, Strand and other national experts developed and implemented a two-week Special Victims Unit Investigations Course to train all agents who specialize in these extremely difficult and complex investigation.
Special Agent Lori Jones, SVU, 78th Military Police Detachment, Criminal Investigation Division, said using the Forensic Experiential Trauma Interviews, part of this specialized training, is a new technique being employed by Army CID special agents.
"The utilization of the FETI technique to interview victims allows us as agents to obtain psychological and physiological evidence that is critical to investigating the reported incident, without editing the victim's memory or forcing them to formulate answers that may be confabulated due to their desire and need to be believed," Jones said.
"'Just the facts, Ma'am' questions do not capture the experience of the victim, and it's critical that we understand we cannot treat them as witnesses to the crime they have experienced," Jones added.
Jones said the worst thing for a sexual assault victim is relating their experience to others often because of the feelings of shame and embarrassment that are inherent in sexual assault crimes, but the most rewarding thing about her job is that by using FETI, she knows she is not harming a victim further with outdated protocols and procedures.
Over the years, the military has been repeatedly criticized by the media and others due to the amount of sexual assault cases investigated and the military's conviction rate or lack thereof, Strand said.
"You might have seen that we are only sending about two percent of our known sex offenders to jail. Well, that is twice as good as the civilian population," she said.
Strand said most offenders do not get caught more often because victims are not willing to come forward. He believes the reason for this is sometimes the lack of trust victims have in law enforcement.
Jones added that the worst part of her job is knowing that societal perceptions of sexual assault are so skewed and false that even though she can provide a great investigative package to the trial counsel, if the panel does not understand the behavior of offenders and the effects of trauma on the victim, justice will not be served.
"This is my focus, my passion and my calling," Jones said. "I am committed to educating myself and others on offender behavior and victim experience. I believe that to enable commanders to make educated decisions when analyzing an investigation for adjudication, I have to be continually researching and providing them with the most up-to-date information."
Based on civilian national/international sexual assault prevalence, Strand said "18.9 percent reported to the (civilian) police, (but) the (civilian) police only recorded 12.6 percent," Strand said. "Why? Because they often didn't believe them, so they didn't record it."
However, the military does not have that option. Every sexual assault that is reported to military law enforcement, is recorded and investigated to the fullest extent, Strand said.
Army SVU agents investigate sexual assaults full time as well as mentor agents with less specialized training. The investigators are trained on memory and trauma, advanced victim interviews, analytical case review and investigating difficult cases.
"Sexual assault investigations should be a multi-disciplinary team approach," Jones said. "Being the installation civilian Sexual Assault Investigator, I am permanently assigned to Fort Leonard Wood, which enables me to build relationships with the installation commanders, other federal and local law enforcement agencies, hospital personnel, mental health care providers and the Staff Judge Advocate office. These relationships are often critical to the success of a sexual assault investigation."