Alcohol redefined as 'weapon' in sexual assault cases by prosecutors, military officials
U.S. Air Force
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — The alcohol — rum, vodka, wine and hard cider — listed in the latest allegation of sexual assault between Air Force Academy cadets is being viewed in a new way by the military and civilian prosecutors.
Alcohol for years has been seen as a contributing factor in rapes, and it is thought to play a role in nearly half of the almost 6,000 sexual assaults reported across the Defense Department last year. But the role alcohol plays has been succinctly redefined.
"It's a weapon," said Katharina Booth, chief trial deputy and chief of the Boulder District Attorney's sexual assault unit.
Booth said the change comes from the realization that perpetrators are more likely to use alcohol to subdue their sexual assault victims than guns, threats and fists.
Alcohol's ties to sexual assault came into focus again in January with the arrest of Air Force Academy junior Cadet Daniel Ryerson. He's charged in state court with sexually assaulting an inebriated female classmate after a night of party-hopping in Boulder on Nov. 1. Ryerson, 21, who police say is linked to the case by DNA evidence, is due in court later this month.
In a December Pentagon report, the military calls alcohol a weapon in its latest sexual assault prevention guidance for commanders, echoing a statement made by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in May.
Hagel ordered a review of alcohol policies in a bid to quell sexual assaults.
"They include a department-wide review of institutional alcohol policies, which will be revised where necessary to address risks that alcohol poses to others, including the risk that alcohol is used as a weapon against victims in a predatory way," Hagel said.
At the Air Force Academy and other military bases, workers who serve alcohol in clubs are being told to watch for those who would use booze as a weapon, said Lt. Col. Kirstin Reimann, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon.
Another step requires commanders to "work with community partners on responsible alcohol sales practices and bystander intervention training for alcohol servers," Reimann wrote in an email to The Gazette.
A 2013 Pentagon report on sexual assaults at service academies showed alcohol played a role in at least a third of incidents.
"However, alcohol likely plays a much larger role than what is depicted in reported incidents," the report said.
A newer report on military academy sexual assaults is due out this month after an unexplained month-long delay.
Last week, academy leaders sat through a presentation on sexual assault and the new view of alcohol's role, according to the academy website.
The speaker, Anne Munch, co-developer of the Air Force's new bystander intervention program to prevent sexual assault, told the academy brass that old views of alcohol put too much focus on the victims of sexual assault.
"For the same reason that a robber chooses a drunk victim (over a sober victim), a rapist will also choose a drunk victim," she said, according the academy's website.
Colorado Springs Police Sgt. John Koch said the sex assaults his detectives investigate frequently involve drunken victims.
Under military and Colorado law, victims who have passed out or are too drunk to render judgment cannot consent to sex — which is a common defense in cases involving booze.
While Koch advises responsible drinking, he tells victims that a mistake with a bottle can never justify rape.
"No mater what you did, it doesn't excuse someone victimizing you," he said.
But no matter how much work is done to change how authorities see the relationship between alcohol and sexual assault, victims remain far less likely to report attacks if they were drinking.
"This combination of alcohol and sex assault is often a huge factor in the underreporting of sexual assault," Booth said. "There is a ton of misplaced self-blame there."
Sexual assault has long been cited as the most commonly unreported crime. The Pentagon celebrated its December report that shows as many as 24 percent of military sexual assault victims were reporting the crime, up from 11 percent a year earlier.
Past reports on sexual assault in military academies, including Air Force, have cited alcohol use as a key factor in the reluctance of victims to seek charges.
To combat alcohol issues, the academy, led by superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, is relying on cadets to keep an eye on each other. Bystander intervention, a concept cadets are trained on, requires them to intercede when a classmate is intoxicated or otherwise at risk for harm including sexual assault.
"Don't drink alone," the academy cautions on its website. "Have a wingman, or better yet two, and know where they are at all times."
Cadets took a pledge last fall to intercede if they see a classmate, or anyone else, at risk of sexual assault. Other work includes educating cadets on responsible drinking and giving more help to victims.
In the recent Boulder case, both Ryerson and the cadet victim described a night of drinking in Boulder in statements to investigators. They described drinking before heading to the parties — splitting a bottle of wine and consuming one hard cider each, police said.
During the parties, where police say Ryerson gained entry from strangers by offering alcohol, the woman told officers she consumed several drinks containing hard alcohol supplied by Ryerson.
A witness at one party, who didn't know either cadet, said that Ryerson escorted the stumbling female cadet into a bathroom where the two were behind a locked door for 20 minutes, the affidavit said. Witnesses say Ryerson later "carried" the unconscious female cadet from the party, police wrote.
The victim referred to Ryerson as her "wingman" during a sexual assault exam at a hospital, according to court documents.
"The issues of binge drinking and sexual assault are complex, societal challenges that all colleges and universities across the nation struggle with. The Academy, like all other college campuses, is not immune to these national problems, and we remain committed to addressing and eliminating both sexual harassment and sexual assault," academy spokesman Lt. Col. Brus Vidal wrote in an email response to questions from the Gazette.
He outlined a litany of programs to designed to fight sexual assault, alcohol abuse and to bolster care for victims.
"Moreover, the Academy remains firm in its commitment to vigorously combat sexual assaults and harassment through the very best awareness and prevention training and base-wide initiatives," he said.
Johnson's push for bystander training has garnered praise from the school's Board of Visitors, an advisory body that reports to the Pentagon.
"I support the leadership efforts of General Johnson to train the best possible next generation of military leaders," U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican who sits on the academy board, said in a statement Friday. "Sexual assault is a serious crime and those who break the rules and regulations of the Academy must be dealt with accordingly."
The academy has stiff penalties for underage drinking and other alcohol missteps including drunken driving, which can result in courts-martial or dismissal. The academy says the number of incidents involving cadets misbehaving with alcohol has plunged — down 79 percent since 2010.
As warnings grow louder about the role alcohol plays in military sexual assaults, the academy has granted its cadets more freedom than the school has offered in its 60 year history.
Seniors, for instance, are free to leave the campus at the end of the classroom day. Juniors, sophomores and freshmen get more control of their time, including more liberal off-campus time, under the policy adopted in recent years.
Johnson has said the increased free-time away from the school has given cadets more responsibility, and it comes with more accountability
"We want them to be adults," she said.
But cadets are young adults and issues involving troops and alcohol have given the military headaches for decades, said retired Maj. Gen. Irv Halter, former vice-superintendent at the academy.
"We have a culture that thinks getting high or drunk is the ultimate use of the weekend, you can quote me on that," said Halter.
To curb alcohol in one unit he commanded, Halter restricted time off for airmen if anyone in the wing had an alcohol offense.
"It was pretty draconian but it got the situation under control," Halter said,
The problem for commanders like Johnson, Halter said, is giving cadets enough freedom to learn responsibility and enough structure to keep them out of trouble.
Another issue for Johnson: Unlike other college students, who are typically portrayed as poverty-stricken, cadets get a paycheck and have few expenses — making a weekend of parties a financially feasible option.
"I shake my head because it seems to be an intractable problem," Halter said. "We as a society need to figure out how to tell people that going and getting silly drunk on the weekends is not in your best interest."
In a meeting with faculty last month, Johnson said the academy is pushing cadets to "make good choices."
She emphasized that immunizing potential victims with tools to prevent problems and training others to intervene remains the best option.
Picking out the predators in the 4,000-member cadet wing before incidents occur is close to impossible, she explained.