WASHINGTON — The number of sexual assaults reported by the military dipped slightly in 2015 compared to the previous year, spurring military leaders to look for new ways to encourage troops to intervene when they see a potentially dangerous situation.
The Pentagon said Thursday there were 6,083 reports of sexual assault involving an active duty service member in 2015, compared to 6,131 in 2014. The number of men reporting sexual assaults also remained relatively the same, at 19 percent of the reported victims, compared to 20 percent in 2014.
Noting that the numbers "have plateaued," Adm. John Richardson, the Navy's top officer, said it's time to make midgrade and junior officers and enlisted service members more accountable when they see a bad situation developing. And it starts, he said, with eliminating the concept of bystanders.
"Nobody is a bystander — we are all in this," Richardson told The Associated Press. "'Bystander' kind of creates a potential haven to make a choice — do I want to get involved or do I not. And there's no choice in our business ... You are not a bystander, you are a full up participant in this and so you've got an obligation to go in and help your shipmate."
Maj. Gen. Camille Nichols, director of the Pentagon's sexual assault prevention and response office, said that surveys done last year suggested that 88 percent of the service members who said they saw a situation that "could have led to a sexual assault" did something to step in. But only 3 percent of the nearly 540,000 active duty military members surveyed said they actually saw that kind of situation.
The problem, officials said, is that often young troops may not recognize a bad situation until it becomes very obviously dangerous.
Nichols said the survey suggested that when service members are in a bar and see someone "talking to someone and perhaps getting a little too close for comfort," they were willing to go over and intervene. "We're not saying that that stopped 16,000 assaults, but clearly there were high-risk, environmental conditions going on where somebody inserted themselves to defuse the situation," she added.
Previously, military officials have encouraged personnel to believe that bystanders should get involved. But Richardson said that sailors and other members of the military are trained to immediately get involved, particularly in safety situations. So, preventing sexual assault or stopping it before it happens should be no different, he said.
"If you learn to recognize those signs and you couple that with an obligation to move in and intervene, then I think that crossing that threshold where I'm obliged to act, it will catch on like a brush fire," Richardson said.
The numbers of reported assaults changed only slightly across the military services.
According to the data, there was a 6 percent increase in reported sexual assaults in the Navy, from 1,295 in 2014 to 1,376 in 2015. The Air Force had a 6 percent decrease, from 406 in 2014 to 381 in 2015; the Army had a decrease of more than 3.4 percent, from 2,606 in 2014 to 2,516 in 2015. The Marine Corps was almost unchanged, with 879 reported sexual assaults in 2015, just one less than the 880 in 2014.
And, the alleged attackers are still most often men. Women were identified as the perpetrator in just 3 percent of the cases, with men making up 81 percent and "unknown" totaling about 15 percent.
Overall, Nate Galbreath, senior executive adviser to the Pentagon's sexual assault prevention program, said the military can still do more to encourage victims to report assaults. In particular, he said the services are trying to revamp some of their training to get more men to come forward. Men historically are far more reluctant than women to report a sexual assault, and they often will characterize such behavior as hazing.
The Pentagon meanwhile, said a new survey shows some lower estimates of the number of people who believe they faced retaliation for making claims of sexual assault, taking into account that what might sometimes feel like revenge may actually be an attempt to help.
The change reflects the understanding that what victims may see as vengeful behavior is, in some cases, actions that are meant to help the survivor heal or get them away from their alleged attackers, military officials say. But they said all of the cases are taken seriously, and the change doesn't affect who can receive help.
"It's not because we don't think that the others didn't have a bad experience, but everybody needs to have an understanding of what is the current state of policy and law to get after some of these experiences," said Galbreath.
In December 2014, a RAND survey said that more than 60 percent of sexual assault victims believed they had faced some type of retaliation from commanders or peers. That estimate was reduced to about 57 percent last year after officials concluded that the survey questions may have inadvertently included actions by commanders seeking to protect the victim.
Based on a new, smaller survey of reservists and some victims who have gone through the military justice system, officials said that about one-third of sexual assault victims believe they face some kind of legally punishable retribution for filing their assault complaint.
Galbreath said the department is beefing up efforts to encourage reporting, to provide better treatment, and to make sure victims understand their options to quickly request a transfer or other remedy.