Picking up the pieces: Law enforcement’s role

  • Published
  • By Micah Garbarino
  • Tinker Public Affairs
Editor's note: In this series on reporting a sexual assault we wanted to look at each step in the process for a "typical" sexual assault case on an Air Force installation. Last week, we focused on the commander's role. This week we'll focus on law enforcement. The final week, we'll look at the legal side of things.

"There is no 'typical' sexual assault case," said Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Special Agent Jeff Johnson.

As soon as Airman Doe decided she wanted to make her report unrestricted, the SARC and her chain of command notified Tinker's AFOSI Detachment 114.

"In a best-case scenario, the victim would go straight to the SARC and straight to the hospital, not shower and not remove or wash their clothes," said agent Johnson. "In this case, the victim did go get an exam and we would be able to collect the evidence from the SANE nurse. But this hardly ever happens and there are many different variations of what does happen."

Airman Doe's decision for a prompt disclosure and examination is usually not the case, and victims' uncertainty is one of the things that can make investigating sexual assault cases challenging.

Another thing that makes sexual assault cases like this one difficult is the presence of alcohol. Agent Johnson said he has worked with off-base prosecutors in the past who would not take a case forward if there was alcohol involved.

"This would be a he said/she said type of case. In those instances we collect the evidence, take the statements of the victim, the subject and the witnesses and present our information to the commander for him/her and the JAG to make a decision on," Agent Johnson said.

The most difficult portion of the process for Airman Doe was the interview. The agents allowed her victim advocate to accompany her. Even though OSI agents are specially trained to conduct these types of interviews, they can be long and uncomfortable.

"Sometimes an interview may last 6-8 hours. It really depends on the victim, the circumstances and what they can recall," said Agent Johnson. "We ask about everything, everything. These interviews are graphically intimate."

The agents were not trying to shame or antagonize her, but after Airman Doe's interview, she was embarrassed. They asked her about everything that occurred at the party between her and everyone else, to include what she had to drink, who she was with, and much more. Some questions were asked twice because as the interview progressed, different memories came clearer, and things she said needed clarification.

"We ask the same questions over at times. We're looking for any additional information that may surface. Sometimes victims recall different things at different times. We're also looking for consistency," agent Johnson said. "But we're not going to re-traumatize the victim with more questioning that is necessary unless there is extensive evidence that the victim is not being honest."

The agents told Airman Doe they would speak to her friends that attended the party and told her that they were going to talk to her attacker. The called him "the subject." He had friends at the party too. She wondered what they were going to say about her.

"We want to know what everyone else's story is. If we talk to the victim, subject and witnesses, and everyone is saying the same thing except for one person, then we have a pretty good idea who we need to re-interview." Agent Johnson said.

Processing the evidence and interviewing all the parties involved in Airman Doe's case took OSI more time than Airman Doe thought, but the investigator told her they must be thorough to present an honest, unbiased report, and have any chance at prosecution.

"Sometimes commanders get impatient. They believe that their Airman (the victim or the subject) is telling the truth. This is not like TV. It's not one day, two days and the case is solved," Agent Johnson said.

OSI investigators are trying to get at the truth. The SARC's primary job is supporting the victim. The commander's primary job is accomplishing the unit's mission. OSI's primary job is presenting an unbiased report of investigation to commanders.

Airman Doe understood the OSI agents and appreciated their position. She was honest with them and told them everything she could remember. The agents told her if her case was prosecuted, it would be based on the JAG's recommendation to the commander.

Next week we'll look at the JAG's role in a sexual assault case.