According to a Department of Defense (DoD) report on sexual assault in the US military, in just 2020 alone, there were 7,816 reported instances of sexual assault involving a member of the armed forces—6,290 of which took place while the associated service member was on active duty. Considering the fact that these numbers are probably not completely accurate, due to the remaining stigma and hesitancy surrounding reports of such abuse, it should be noted that the DoD’s findings have likely been underestimated.
In an attempt to increase the number of survivors willing to come forward, a new military-wide policy is taking shape in the US. Titled the Safe-to-Report Act, the new order directs commanding officers to not take any notice—unlike before—of certain ‘minor’ infractions that a victim may have participated in as part of the circumstances surrounding their assault, so long as those infractions haven’t jeopardised a mission or caused other significant harm as a result. Examples of minor infractions (previously used to discredit victims) have included underage drinking, an unprofessional relationship with the accused or violation of other lawful orders, which can include curfews, off-limits businesses and housing policies.
If, when using these new guidelines, a commander finds that any collateral misconduct is not minor, they will then retain the ability to charge the victim. If the misconduct is proved to be ‘minor’, it won’t be prosecuted, but commanders can still refer survivors to substance abuse or behavioural health screening if there is a concern.
“The Safe-to-Report policy will allow us to build on the support we strive to provide to victims of sexual assault, while ensuring due process for the accused and good order and discipline for the Force,” Pentagon Under-Secretary Gil Cisneros wrote in a recent Pentagon memo advising commanders of the new rules, as reported in Military Times.
The policy was included in the most recent National Defense Authorization Act and championed in Congress by Senators Chuck Grassley and Kirsten Gillibrand, who first introduced the measure early 2020. “Sexual assault is a pervasive problem across our military and far too often we are failing to support and protect survivors,” Gillibrand said in a statement last spring, when the amendment first passed the Senate Armed Services Committee, as reported in Mic.
“Not only do too many survivors still fear retribution for reporting their experiences, but they also lack confidence that justice will be served if they come forward. We must do more to provide a safe environment for our men and women in uniform to report instances of sexual assault,” the Senator continued at the time.
While the military has long struggled with addressing how it uncovers and pursues (or doesn’t) assault cases among its ranks, the issue of sexual abuse in particular surged back into the public’s eye in 2020. At the time, 20-year-old Fort Hood army specialist Vanessa Guillén was found dead just months after telling her family she had been sexually harassed by another soldier.
Guillén’s mother told ABC News that her daughter had clearly stated what had happened to her, yet when she asked her whether she had reported “that bastard,” Guillén had said no because she feared they wouldn’t believe her, “They laugh at all the girls that have gone and they don’t believe them.”
While the Safe-to-Report policy will never be able to solve sexual assault in the military on its own, it shows potential for lowering the barriers for reporting—perhaps just enough to help some survivors come forward and get the justice they deserve.
The policy also drops as the Pentagon is working to implement dozens of other recommendations. One of those changes is to take prosecution of sexual assaults out of a commander’s hands, which will require a law change. If that legislation ends up interfering with the Safe-to-Report Act, the Joint Service Committee on Military Justice will then be in charge of revising it in order to keep it current.
The world is getting hotter, the Earth is getting dimmer and natural systems are going haywire while global health enters a ‘code red’ era. In short, climate change is the new normal, leaving all of us with three options: mitigate, adapt or suffer. On a supposed quest to adapt and prepare for climate disasters, however, local police are stockpiling former tools of war—with few checks on how they are ultimately used.
According to a recent investigation by HuffPost, there has been an explosion in the number of police and sheriffs’ departments citing catastrophic storms, blizzards and floods to justify why they ought to receive military vehicles. Obtaining hundreds of requests for armoured cars written by local agencies to the Defense Department in 2017 and 2018, the publication noted how this trend is a drastic departure from previous years—during which the risk of extreme weather was rarely mentioned.
HuffPost noted the case study of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office in Iowa, which had gotten hold of a massive mine-resistant vehicle in 2014. At the time, Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek reassured the sceptical public that officers would primarily use it for extreme weather events in order to save residents from the state’s extraordinary blizzards and floods. “Essentially, it’s really a rescue, recovery and transport vehicle,” he said to the press back then.
Staging the former war machine at last year’s racial justice protests—where officers fired tear gas at peaceful protesters for refusing to disperse—to driving it through a predominantly black neighbourhood to serve arrest warrants, the Iowa City police seems to have used the vehicle for anything but the weather. This outrage spurred the state’s city council members to demand the county to hand the vehicle back to the Pentagon earlier this year. “It is a vehicle made for wartime circumstances, and in my honest opinion, it doesn’t belong here,” council member Janice Weiner told HuffPost.
For starters, the US has not invested in large-scale disaster preparedness, forcing local governments and law enforcement to prepare and brace for extraordinary weather while paying for it largely on their own. “But the bigger reason may be that the Defense Department has also started to cue local police and sheriffs to make a big deal out of their role in disaster response,” HuffPost wrote, adding how the Pentagon began to list natural disasters as a citing source on the forms that cops must submit to justify their requests for armoured vehicles.
Several documents obtained by the publication highlighted how local agencies literally ate up this logic—with the police and sheriffs’ departments along the Gulf Coast, from Florida to Georgia to Louisiana, mentioning a “legendary hurricane season” in their states while New Jersey recalled its total incapacitation after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. “Our resources were quickly overwhelmed and the inability to respond with adequate high water rescue vehicles severely hampered rescue operations,” the chief of police down at Lacey Township, a village in New Jersey’s flood-prone Pine Barrens, wrote in a request for an up-armored Humvee in 2018. When HuffPost reached out for a comment, a deputy for the township said he had no memory of the request.
Then comes a small tweak made to the Pentagon’s 1033 Program last year, where the Congress instructed the Defense Department to give the highest priority to “applications that request vehicles used for disaster-related emergency preparedness, such as high-water rescue vehicles.” The change essentially supercharged the incentives for linking climate disasters to military hardware—even in instances where there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between the two.
While some disaster preparedness experts who spoke to HuffPost hesitated at the idea of flooding the country with even more military vehicles under the excuse of preparing for climate change, others noted how the police are free to use gear from the Pentagon however they want since no one is charged with making sure that they are being used for disaster response in the first place. A niche also pointed out that the police are ultimately responsible for safeguarding the public in the event of a climate catastrophe—and that military vehicles don’t exactly do much to help them prepare for this role.
“I can guarantee you that none of these police departments putting climate or extreme weather down have emergency management plans to use it [that way],” said Leigh Anderson, a Chicago State University researcher and auditor who oversees police departments in Illinois and Missouri. In an interview with HuffPost, she noted how officers in most jurisdictions are underprepared for rescue operations with leadership focusing only on accruing the right equipment.
According to Rune Storesund, the executive director of the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the US’s top priorities should be to update infrastructure so that communities can withstand such disasters. This can be achieved t by building neighbourhoods that don’t flood and roads that don’t buckle in the first place. “I’m having a hard time imagining how these military vehicles are directly relatable to climate-related events,” Storesund said.
Note that such vehicles are not entirely useless during natural catastrophes. In terms of extreme weather strikes or hurricanes, the appeal of a truck made to withstand roadside bombs is clear. HuffPost noted the fact that many blast-proof vehicles, such as mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs) can drive over fallen trees, withstand high winds, ford several feet of water and keep going at moderate speeds even if their tires are punctured.
“But an obvious consequence of giving police militarised equipment under the auspices of preparing for natural disasters is that police are free to use it for more pernicious purposes,” the investigation concluded, adding how climate change thereby offers a friendlier explanation for police militarisation at a time when a huge share of the public is angered by police impunity.