The United States military is seeking advice from the Ashland Police Department on how to improve the military's response to sexual assaults.
APD Deputy Chief Corey Falls traveled to Austin, Texas, last week to give a presentation to a federal panel about how the department deals with reports of sexual assaults.
Congress formed the Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel in May.
The panel has been holding meetings across the country to learn about highly regarded civilian methods for investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults and related offenses.
The information gathered could be used to reform the military's judicial system and the way it responds to reports of sexual assault.
Critics say the military has a system that discourages victims from stepping forward while providing too much leniency for some perpetrators.
Over the last few years, APD has created a victim-centered approach to sexual assault investigations.
APD investigators begin with a stance of believing what victims report.
Under APD's "You Have Options" campaign, victims don't have to decide right away whether they want to press charges.
"We allow victims to decide how they participate. That's really cutting edge right now," Falls said upon his return from Texas.
Victims can go to Rogue Valley hospitals for free sexual assault medical care. Trained personnel can collect evidence, emergency contraception is available and victims can be referred to support and advocacy services.
APD created a website to inform victims of their options and the sexual assault investigation and prosecution process.
The approach is showing results.
In 2009, APD received 24 reports of sexual assault. The number of reported sexual assaults increased to 35 in 2012, Falls said.
"That doesn't necessarily mean more sexual assaults are occuring," he said. "Sexual assault is the most under-reported crime in America. When the number of reported sexual assaults increases, that's a good thing. We're getting people to come forward."
City Administrator Dave Kanner said when the Department of Defense reached out to the International Association of Chiefs of Police asking which law enforcement agencies had a best practices approach to sexual assault investigations, the association recommended APD.
"This is an amazing honor to our police department and is a reward to the hard work Detective Carrie Hull has put into our sexual assault program and to Chief Terry Holderness, whose leadership style allows and encourages progressive innovations," Kanner said.
Falls said APD's sexual assault response program would not have been possible without the hard work Hull has put in.
Falls said the Los Angeles and Austin Police Departments also testified before the panel when he was in Texas.
Like APD, those departments have adopted a victim-centered approach to sexual assault investigations, he said.
"We're a small city. It's nice to be part of a program that could really change things in law enforcement," Falls said. "I really feel good about the direction we're going. In the next five to 10 years, this will be the norm."
Falls said he can't speak to how the military investigates reports of sexual assaults and how that differs from APD's approach.
Brian Purchia, communications manager for the national Protect Our Defenders organization, said APD has adopted good, common-sense methods for handling reports of sexual assault.
"It's great that they're putting these efforts forward on behalf of victims," he said.
Protect Our Defenders advocates for the rights of sexual assault victims in the military. The organization testified before the Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel in November.
The military judicial system has key differences from the civilian judicial system and needs to be reformed, according to Protect Our Defenders.
In the military, the accused's commander decides whether a case should go to court martial. The commander also appoints the jury, the organization said.
In the civilian world, that would be equivalent to a boss deciding whether a worker who sexually assaulted a co-worker is prosecuted.
"Men and women in uniform deserve an impartial, independent justice system," Purchia said.
Bills are pending in Congress that would remove that power from commanders.
Commanders can also overturn verdicts or sentences.
In a case that sparked outrage, Air Force Lt. General Craig Franklin overturned the aggravated sexual assault conviction of Lt. Colonel James Wilkerson in February.
Victims are often discouraged from reporting sexual assault and can be charged with adultery and other offenses if they speak out, according to Protect Our Defenders.
Before a case goes to trial, a victim may be forced to endure a grueling hearing that can last for days. Military hearings should more closely resemble the civilian grand jury process, Protect Our Defenders recommended.
In the military, a person can be acquitted of rape using the "good military character" defense, also known as the "good soldier defense."
However, whether or not a person is good at their job has little bearing on whether the person committed a crime, according to Protect Our Defenders.
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.