The Air Force’s Global Strike Command wasted no time issuing a press release to explain the result in a recent case that had garnered unwelcome national attention. It’s a fairly obvious attempt to seize the publicity initiative in preparation for the inevitable backlash sure to occur as more details of the case become known.
Tech. Sgt. Aaron Allmon, a member of Minot Air Force Base’s public affairs office, was initially charged with multiple sex-based offenses arising from allegations of unwelcome verbal and physical approaches toward female office mates. The charges would have carried a maximum of 130 years in prison because of the way they were stacked and structured by prosecutors. A pre-trial paring of the specifications reduced Allmon’s jeopardy to 15 years after a military judge expressed concerns about abusive charging.
If the trial itself is any indication, the government indeed went overboard.
As a result of the trial held this past week, Allmon will spend a grand total of 30 days in jail (of which 7 have already been served) and be reduced to Staff Sgt. He was acquitted of nearly all of the original charges, including the more serious offenses by which prosecutors attempted to portray him as a sexual predator.
In the end, he was found guilty on two counts of “making repeated verbal comments of a sexual nature,” which the Air Force styled as “maltreatment of subordinates.” Allmon was also found guilty of lying to investigators, a charge stemming from his resistance to surrender his cellphone. This latter charge is arguably the most serious, and is totally unconnected to the underlying conduct that gave rise to the original investigation.
Even the comparatively mild sentence Allmon eventually received was steep given the circumstances. His actions amount to inappropriate verbal conduct with coworkers. He wasn’t convicted of touching, threatening, or even harassing anyone. It’s not clear whether he was put on notice by individual complainants and given a chance to correct his conduct. Testimony at the trial indicated to some observers the existence of an unprofessional workplace where sexual discussions were not uncommon.
It was recently revealed that the Army prosecuted, punished, and discharged thousands of soldiers who were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other combat-related mental ailments. Rather than treat their illnesses, commanders focused on and criminalized the actions arising from those illnesses. This is another way of understanding the Allmon case. His 18 years of honorable service, including several deployments in which he developed mental struggles that followed him home, were not enough to persuade commanders or prosecutors to handle his transgressions with administrative remedies or to evaluate whether his actions were explainable by mental illness rather than criminality. Instead, the government pursued a felony trial on what amounted to improper conversations.
There’s an explanation for this, though not an acceptable one, and its fingerprints are all over the Air Force press release. Here’s a very telling excerpt:
“The case demonstrates the Air Force’s commitment to tackling sexual harassment, which is on the continuum of harm that includes sexual assault.”
The individual circumstances of any case even vaguely connected to sexual misconduct are no longer important now that the issue has been toxically politicized. What matters for the Air Force is demonstrating its seriousness in dealing with any case that has a sexual component. It has obviously determined that the best way to show seriousness is to operate from a “continuum of harm” perspective that treats every sex-themed fact pattern — even one involving little more than workplace flirtation — with the same seriousness it would treat the most heinous forms of sexual violence.
There are several reasons to lament this development. First, it’s based on a myth. The “continuum of harm” idea is junk science at best and snake oil at worst. There is no proof that a person who makes snide sexual remarks will graduate to more serious crimes, and in fact the criminology of sexual assault suggests just the opposite. But second, even if such a continuum exists, it would be hateful to the concept of justice to treat a defendant as more blameworthy that his alleged behaviors support simply because his conduct might be a distant cousin of something more serious — something for which the perception of a diligent prosecution carries a political incentive.
More important to the plight of victims, this cheapens sexual violence. The trauma endured by a rape or assault victim is qualitatively different from what is endured by someone stuck working with a creepy or awkward coworker. At least one of Allmon’s office mates was granted a permissive change of station after reporting his conduct. This is a step envisioned to move sexual assault victims out of the environments where their victimization occurred. Granting this provision for someone subjected to dirty talk in the workplace shows how dissolute the Air Force’s culture has become on this cluster of ideas.
But the biggest reason to worry about this is that it shows how incapable the Air Force is of operating a justice process free from improper influence. Even this press release, with its citation of the “continuum of harm,” nudges prosecutors in future cases toward the kind of charge-stacking and charge confusion that riddled this case.
Command influence is facilitating the intrusion of politics into the Air Force justice process, in this case dissolving the line between sexual harassment and sexual assault. This leads to injustice, and erodes overall system legitimacy.
It also promises to make men and women increasingly paranoid about workplace relationships. If, in the eyes of the Air Force, dirty jokes and other unprofessional but nonviolent transgressions are just as serious as violent felonies — the message sent by taking a case like this one to a general court martial — airmen will constrain themselves from communicating across gender lines rather than risk having something they say misconstrued. The risks of building a relationship with anyone of the opposite sex will become too steep, and airmen will simply avoid contact altogether.
This is the road to failure, both on the sexual assault issue and in more general terms. In approaching the problem politically rather than from a law enforcement perspective, the Air Force is actually corroding unit cohesiveness and deepening misunderstanding. In this grand stumble, the open communication needed to combat sexual assault is the first casualty.
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