Sexual assault: A growing problem in the military and at home

Leon Panetta admitted the military had a habit of Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, March 25, 2013 ― In an interview with Natalie Morales of NBC News on September 27, 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta admitted the military had a habit of “sweeping these issues [sexual assault] under the rug.”

The Pentagon reported an estimated 19,000 sexual assaults in the military in FY 2011. This is based on 3,191 reported assaults, and the assumption that only one-in-six sexual assaults is reported. A U.S. Army report released last year claimed that the rate of violent sexual crime in the military has risen by 60 percent since 2006. According to the report, “rape, sexual assault, and forcible sodomy were the most frequent violent sex crimes committed in 2011.” Women accounted for 95 percent of the victims.

Before sexual predators even begin to serve our country, some of them are enrolled in the military academies. A Defense Department report last January indicated that the number of sexual assaults at the military academies rose by nearly 60 percent during the last academic year, despite the fact that most of the academy programs satisfied, and in some cases exceeded, the requirements of existing policies on preventing and reporting sexual assault. 

To have an increase with those policies in place means there is something more basically wrong. Policies only work if they have enough teeth and if they are enforced by the leadership.

Panetta, in his NBC interview, admitted the military has not dealt effectively with the problem:

“It is an outrage that we are not prosecuting. These are tough cases to prosecute … but the fact is we can do this. … We need to improve investigations … Basically you say to the leaders, officers, NCOs and platoon leaders: ‘If you don’t deal with this then we’re going to deal with you.’ There has to be a price to be paid for ignoring this problem. … It is everyone’s responsibility.”

The Steubenville, Ohio rape and the silence of many following the incident is but the latest evidence of the need for stronger laws and stronger enforcement in the civilian population, as well. A culture of protecting high school athletes may be responsible for much of the silence. The football coach allegedly told players who told him about the events that “he’d take care of it.” It is a refreshing sign that there will be continued investigations and prosecutions.

In Torrington, Connecticut, three high school football players allegedly recently sexually molested two 13 year-old girls. Classmates took to Twitter to call the girl who reported it a snitch and accused her of ruining the athletes’ lives, according to a local county newspaper. Apparently this crime had a bullying component as well. 

Vincent Mustaro, senior staff associate for policy at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said school officials are required to take steps to stop online bullying but warned that “the school system cannot become, in fact, the Internet police. If it spills over into the school setting and therefore is potentially disruptive of the educational process that opens the door, so to speak, for the school to take some action. If it’s being talked about in the school, if it affects students in the school, I would say it probably falls under the potential that it can be disruptive to the school setting.”

Less than two months ago, Human Rights Watch (HRW) came out with a report detailing the failure of the Washington DC Metropolitan Police (MPD) to investigate sexual offenses. They cited numerous methods employed by detectives to ensure that those crimes that did get investigated went nowhere in the legal system. The report documents significant non-compliance by detectives with respect to internal procedures and a lack of supervisory review.

The report reveals a culture of incompetence based upon evidence gathered from the FBI, documents produced by the Mayor’s Office of Victim Services, from the city’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner and from a lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act. HRW carefully documented the failure of the MPD to investigate and report rape cases between October 2008 and September 2011.

The report’s main findings include:

  • Not documenting many reported sexual assaults, instead choosing to label them as “unfounded” without even filing a police report;
  • Not investigating several cases of reported serious sexual assault, instead classifying the reports as for “office information only” or “miscellaneous” cases, thereby ending any investigation;
  • Improperly classifying some cases of reported serious sexual assault as misdemeanors or non-sexual offenses;
  • Requesting arrest warrants too early, resulting in the cases being rejected for prosecution based on evidential insufficiency.

America’s most famous sheriff, Joe Arpaio, of Maricopa County, Arizona, best known for his tough attitudes towards county jail inmates and illegal immigrants, allegedly hid more than 400 sex crimes reported to him during the three years 2004-2007. These included dozens of child molestations. Many of the victims, said a retired El Mirage police official who reviewed the files, were children of illegal immigrants. In 2011, Joe apologized: “If there were any victims, I apologize to those victims.”

Estimated rates of sexual assault in the United States continue to rise, even as the FBI reports decreasing rates of other forms of assault. It is unclear whether this is due to improved reporting, better estimating procedures, or an actual increase in the rate of sexual assault. 

What is clear is that if the laws are weak or are not well enforced, the behavior they’re designed to prevent will continue unabated. Laws don’t work unless they are evenly applied, the likelihood of being caught is high, the punishment is sufficient to deter the crime, and it is delivered without long delays.

There must also be laws making citizens responsible for reporting crimes. Every state has a law making failure to report sexual abuse a crime if the suspected victim is a minor. These laws are rarely enforced. 

If enough of us yell, and scream, and demand stricter laws and enforcement, we may see fewer sexual abuse victims. We should not forget that we once did not allow women to vote, and that there are many who advocate that children’s rights begin at conception. If we see how lame it was not to allow women to vote, and if we accept any standard of rights for children, regardless of when bestowed, how can we then not follow up and treat them with the dignity they deserve by protecting them? I am not aware of any path that will accomplish that protection other than stricter laws that are enforced.


Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980.  He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website. He is also available to speak to your group on numerous legal topics.  Paul is the featured legal analyst on the Washington Times Radio, in Washington, D.C., on the Andy Parks show, the featured legal analyst for America’s Radio News Network, heard in 165 markets nationwide, and he is a columnist on the Washington Times Communities.

His book The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You is free to Maryland and Virginia residents and can be obtained by ordering it on his website; others can obtain it on Amazon.




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Paul Samakow

Attorney Paul Samakow brings his legal expertise to the headlines from life and real-life experience to The Washington Times Communties. A native Washingtonian, Samakow has been a Plaintiff’s trial lawyer since 1980, with offices in Maryland and Virginia. 

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