Pentagon launches program to identify serial offenders

Pentagon launches program to identify serial offenders

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is targeting serial sex offenders with a new program that tracks confidential information provided by victims.

The Pentagon, which has long struggled with sexual assault in its ranks, is hoping that victims who have been reluctant to file formal complaints will do so if they know their assailant has assaulted another victim. 

The Catch Program debuted Monday across the military and seeks to aid troops who file sexual assault complaints known as restricted reports. Such reports do not trigger an official investigation but allow the victim to receive health care, legal advice and advocacy. The program began receiving some reports June 19, according to Jessica Maxwell, a Pentagon spokeswoman. Several victims have sought to enter information into the system about their assailant.

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The Pentagon has struggled to combat sexual assault in its ranks. This spring, officials called for sweeping changes to programs for victims following a reported 38% increase in assaults from 2016 to 2018.

Victims taking part in the new program will provide information via computer confidentially, including such information about their assailant as name, rank, height, tattoos and other identifiers. Criminal investigators at the services will then compare data on sexual assaults in the military and with national databases on crime to identify serial offenders. 

If a match is made, law enforcement will contact sexual assault response personnel who in turn will notify the victim and give him or her chance to file a formal charge, known as an unrestricted report.

“One of the things that our surveys tell us all the time is that one of the reasons that people come forward to report, that’s very convincing for them, is this idea that if they report they might be protecting somebody else,” Nathan Galbreath, deputy director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, told USA TODAY.

Research also shows that assailants often have multiple victims, Galbreath said, indicating a program like Catch could help stop repeat offenders.

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The Pentagon’s report on sexual assault in the military released this spring had surveyed Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine personnel in 2018. Based on the survey, there were an estimated 20,500 instances of unwanted sexual contact – an increase over the 14,900 estimated in the last biennial survey in 2016. Unwanted sexual contact ranges from groping to rape.

“Bottom line is that the things that did bring down prevalence of sexual assault, the occurrence of the crime over the past six years, just weren’t working as well,” Galbreath said. “This is one of those things that we’re hoping will bring more folks forward.”

The Pentagon estimates that about one third of sexual assault victims report the crime. Of those reports, one quarter are restricted, Galbreath said.

“We’re hoping this brings more folks in the door,” he said. “To at least consider giving us their information so that they participate to their level of comfort.”

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Victims who decline to file an unrestricted report will be asked if they want to be contacted in the future. If they agree, the information they provided will be retained for 10 years. 

Rep. Jackie Speier, the California Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel, applauded the Department of Defense for launching the program.

“We know that the military and the DoD have previously failed to foster environments that encourage sexual assault survivors to come forward and report their assailants,” Speier said. “Military sexual assaults increased by 38% over the past two years while reporting rates decreased by 3%. The CATCH program is a necessary step to reversing this disturbing trend. 

“Any tool that can root out sexual predators within the military is a tool worth using.”

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