ARLINGTON, Va. — The Defense Department announced a new sexual assault reporting policy on Friday that allows victims to notify authorities of the attack and receive medical treatment without automatically triggering an official military investigation.

The DOD’s current policy, which requires an official military investigation to begin as soon as a sexual assault is reported by a servicemember, discourages many victims from coming forward, according to David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

Many experts believe sexual assault to be “the most under-reported violent crime in the nation and in the military,” Chu told Pentagon reporters.

The new policy “is a big change,” Chu said, because victims will now have some time to get medical treatment and to learn about legal options before an official investigation kicks off.

Victims will also have more control over the release of his or her personal information, Chu said.

Under restricted reporting, victims will be allowed to discuss details of their attack in confidence with a designated “sexual assault response coordinator,” or SARC, or with a health-care provider, who will then notify the base’s SARC instead of law enforcement or the base commander.

Victims already have the right to discuss sexual assaults as “privileged communications” with military chaplains, and the policy does not change that protection.

The SARC then will assign a victim advocate, whose job is to accurately describe all of the victim’s rights and options, including a criminal investigation.

The advocate will give victims the sense that “Now I have somebody with me; I’m not in this by myself,” Brig. Gen. K.C. McClain, commander of the Joint Task Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, said during Friday’s press conference.

Unless the victim gives permission for unrestricted reporting of his or her case, the SARC, medical provider and victim advocate will be forbidden from discussing any oral, written or electronic communications with that person with command authorities or military or civilian law enforcement officials.

The SARC is obligated to report the general outlines of the case to command authorities within 24 hours of the incident, as long as the report omits any information that “could reasonably lead to personal identification,” according to the memorandum.

That requirement will ensure that commanders will have “a more realistic assessment of what’s actually happening in their jurisdictions,” because they will receive information on events that were previously going unreported, Chu said.

Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz signed the memorandum that created the changes March 16.

But the policy does not become effective for another 90 days, to give time to train all DOD personnel in the new policy, as well as training for commanders, health personnel and other key participants in sexual assault response, Chu said.

“It’s going to take quite some time to do this,” Chu said.

The new policy complies with a requirement in the 2004 defense budget authorization that contained a clause requiring the Pentagon address the confidential reporting of sexual assault.

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