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Military Services Fall Short in Responding to Domestic Violence on Bases

Watchdog finds inconsistencies in reporting and documentation.

The Defense Department maintains a complex set of guidelines on how military base law enforcement should investigate reports of domestic violence, but actual adherence to those policies by the services is starkly inconsistent, a watchdog found.

In a just-released review of 219 nonsexual domestic violence cases handled by the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the Pentagon’s inspector general found that in 62 cases crime scenes were processed incorrectly. Law enforcement also may have missed opportunities for interviews (148 cases out of 219), failed to notify the service’s Family Advocacy Program (49 cases), or failed to submit criminal history data with proper documentation to the Defense Central Index of Investigations and the FBI Criminal Justice Information Services Division (180 cases).

“As a result, decision makers (commanders and prosecutors) may not be able to make informed disciplinary and prosecutorial decisions due to inadequate investigating and documentation of domestic violence incidents by military service law enforcement personnel,” the report said. “These deficiencies could also hinder criminal investigations, impact law enforcement and national security interests and expose victims to additional harm.”

The lapses often involved failure to collect evidence or take photographs of victims or crime scenes. For example, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, law enforcement personnel responded to a report that a subject had held a knife while strangling and threatening a victim, but the investigators did not seize the knife.

At Fort Belvoir in Fairfax, Va., law enforcement officers responded to a report of family violence in which a female victim lost consciousness with her three children present. The children had informed their mother what had occurred, and she relayed the information to the officers, but they neglected to directly speak to the children.

The report included explanations for the lapses. At Fort Bragg in North Carolina, the chief of police told the IG team that he had several inexperienced investigators, and that they often have multiple domestic violence responses happening at the same time. “In these instances, if the subject at one incident admits to committing a domestic violence offense, then the investigator may decide not to take photographs because the subject admitted to committing the offense. Instead, the investigator focuses his response on the other domestic violence incident where he will take the required photographs,” the report said. Such practice is against Defense Department procedure.

An example of a subject’s DNA not being submitted to the databases occurred at Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington, D.C., when officers responded to a report that a subject had struck a victim in the nose with the tips of his fingers, the report said. Similarly, at the Naval Base San Diego, NCIS responded to reports that a subject had grabbed the victim’s chest and arms and caused bruises. In both cases, the officers decided there was insufficient evidence for probable cause, but did not, as required, take DNA evidence as a precaution.

In many cases, “military service law enforcement personnel did not have the necessary equipment, such as cameras and digital field exploitation systems, to comply with DoD policies,” the report said. Further, military service law enforcement supervisors did not perform effective supervisory oversight of domestic violence incident responses. For example, we found that supervisors did not review incident reports or only performed superficial reviews, which did not identify or correct the deficiencies discussed in the report.”

The IG recommended that the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force take steps to ensure that documentation for each case, including fingerprint cards, is properly titled and indexed. The report also recommended that DNA always be collected and submitted to the national databases, that base law enforcement personnel be outfitted with proper equipment and that supervisors better understand the importance of maintaining consistency with Defense investigatory guidance, especially the requirement of notifying the Family Advocacy Program.

Management for each of the services agreed with most, but not all, of the recommendations, though not all of them were addressed in the services’ responses.

One dissent was heard from the chief of staff for the Office of the Army Provost Marshal General, who said the Army needs to conduct an analysis of its database systems to determine whether it can comply with the recommendation that it review investigative cases dating back to 1998. And the assistant director of NCIS defended the decision not to collect DNA from the woman who was allegedly bruised, saying the woman had recanted her claim of having been a victim.