Domestic assault shows limits of Navy justice

Oak Harbor police and attorneys with Northwest Justice Project have uncovered a long and escalating pattern of domestic violence between a Navy petty officer and his wife, according to documents filed in Island County Superior Court.

The abuse culminated in rape and assault with a deadly weapon in May, according to a charging document filed May 23. Charles Brown, a 27-year-old enlisted man stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey in Oak Harbor, was recently charged with three counts of rape in the first degree, second-degree assault with a deadly weapon, felony stalking and felony violation of a protection order. If convicted, Brown could face well more than 20 years in prison.

The case underscores the differences in the ways military and the civilian law and justice systems handle reports of domestic abuse. And it may serve as a vivid illustration, if the allegations prove to be true, of why Navy bureaucracy should move ahead with a proposal to hand over all domestic violence reports at base housing to civilian authorities.

"Civilian authorities have a better system for dealing with domestic violence than the military currently does," said Detective Jerry Baker with Oak Harbor Police Department.

State laws are based on the idea of early intervention in domestic violence situations, which is not always the case in the world of military justice. Unlike state law, there is no mandate for the arrest of an aggressor, or a corresponding temporary protection order under the Uniform Code of Military Justice that Navy security must follow.

Domestic abuse cases that occur in Navy housing in the county have been handled by Island County Sheriff's Office for the last nine months. But in the much larger areas of base housing within the city limits, Navy security still handles domestic abuse reports involving sailors as the aggressors.

Oak Harbor Police Capt. Rick Wallace said the Whidbey base doesn't have a brig to detain suspects and the magistrate -- a Navy judge -- only comes to the base on an irregular basis.

"The easy solution is to just have us respond to all domestic violence cases," he said. "I think everyone is in favor of the concept. It's just a matter of working through the bureaucracy of the U.S. Navy."

James Campbell, a special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS, said the city police department and officials at Navy Region Northwest are hammering out details of a formal agreement to allow police to deal with all domestic violence cases. In addition, he said the Navy in general has been working hard recently to improve the way domestic violence cases are handled. On Whidbey, the base has created a new domestic abuse task force that's currently working informally and will have an office in September.

Moreover, Kim Martin, the NAS Whidbey public affairs officer, said the Navy's objective in dealing with domestic violence is the same as the state's.

"Our goal is to intervene at the lowest possible level," she said.

But in the Brown case, the Navy's intervention didn't stop the violence from escalating. Petty Officer Brown admitted to going to his wife's home in violation of both military and civilian protection orders, according to report written by Detective Baker. The victim claimed that Brown threatened her with a kitchen knife and forced her to have sex with him.

Suspect found in closet

Navy security made a "welfare check" on the woman and her children May 7 and found Brown hiding in the closet. A security officer found a kitchen knife in the bedroom, which the officer placed in the kitchen sink without taking into evidence.

Navy officials were aware of many investigated and "substantiated" instances in which Brown physically abused his wife, including one case in which she ended up in the emergency room. Navy officials have issued at least three military protection orders against him and even took away his security clearance based on allegations of child and spousal abuse, as well as fraud.

But according to court documents, which include several letters from Navy officials, the military's response to Brown's actions was to send him to counseling -- which he didn't complete -- and letters of reprimand.

The case against Brown, however, is complicated by the fact that the alleged victim wasn't cooperative with Navy security officers and pretended that she didn't know Brown was even in the house, though later she accused him of raping her. Also, the victim was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence against Brown in February.

Yet the woman, her attorney and law enforcement argue that the reason for the complications or inconsistencies are due to the way the Navy has dealt with Brown's violence in the past.

"She told me," Baker wrote, "the mental and physical abuse had been going on for years and nothing was being done by the Navy to stop it. That she did not trust NAS security to help in any way."

Capt. Wallace said, looking back, arresting the woman was the wrong decision.

Victim ended up in jail

According to court documents, Navy security officers went to Brown's residence Feb. 7 and heard screaming. The officers went inside and saw the couple grappling. Brown had a knife in his hand, so the officers drew their weapons and ordered him to put the knife down, which he did.

Brown claimed that he had just taken the knife from the woman. She was uncooperative with officers, Wallace said, and wasn't forthcoming with her side of the story.

"She had it up to here," he said, "and she wasn't going to talk anymore."

Security called the Oak Harbor police and asked to have her arrested, which she was. She spent the night in jail, but the city attorney dismissed the charges.

Wallace said the reason the woman was arrested was likely due, at least in part, to the lack of experience among Navy security officers. Under the Navy system, he said there is a "high turnover" in security as sailors rotate through assignments.

"I'm not defending what they did," he said. "I think it was wrong. But I don't think there was any evil intent on the part of security. They didn't just decide to blame her and let their buddy go."

As the system stands now, Wallace said Navy security responds first to reports of crimes -- including domestic violence -- in the "joint jurisdiction" of base housing within city limits, which are located at Seaplane base, housing off Regatta Drive and off Crescent Harbor Road.

If security officers suspect an active-duty member of the Navy of committing a crime, they either handle it or notify NCIS if it's a felony-level crime. If a civilian is the suspect, the Oak Harbor police are notified and the county or city court system will handle the case.

Navy decision rests with commander

Under the Navy system of justice, Agent Campbell explained that it's ultimately up to a Navy member's commanding officer whether he or she will face a court martial or other discipline for committing a crime. A commanding officer also decides whether or not to issue military protection issues.

But if NCIS isn't happy about the way a commanding officer is handling a case, Campbell said he could take the matter out of the reach of the Navy and bring it to the county prosecutor for possible charges. Campbell said he's never felt the need to do that on Whidbey.

According to Campbell, the Navy is improving the way is deals with domestic violence cases, though he agrees it's hampered by the lack of any specific domestic violence-related rules under the military code.

Navy security is made up of a mix of professional law enforcement, those with a "master at arms rating," and auxiliary forces, who may be mechanics, cooks and others temporarily assigned to security. Campbell said the number of master at arms officers has increased since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Campbell said Navy Region Northwest is looking at a regional training program for security officers which would "mirror" the state police academy program.

In addition, Campbell said NCIS and the base's Family Advocacy officials held educational training last fall to educate commanding officers on "what domestic violence is all about."

"The response it better than it has ever been," he said. He added it helps that base commanding officer Capt. Stephen Black is "fully behind keeping (domestic violence) offenders accountable."

OHPD role finds support

Nevertheless, Campbell said he supports the idea of having the Oak Harbor Police Department deal with domestic cases on base housing. He explained that the Island County Sheriff's Office agreed to respond to all domestic violence cases in military housing within the county on an informal basis. The police, on the other hand, wanted a formal agreement.

"Navy Region Northwest is looking into the issue for the entire region," he said.

While most people involved in the Brown case say it doesn't represent the typical way the Navy deals with domestic violence within their ranks, it may be an indication that there are cracks in the system that need filling.

"I would think that certain commands in the Navy would want to pay close attention to the Brown case, and how it is ultimately resolved," Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said. "It may give them a reason to review the case's history, and examine their policies regarding domestic violence complaints."

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