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Former police officer brings his law enforcement expertise to SAPRO

Feb. 16, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Dave Thomas Interview MWM 20140127
Sexual assault cases too often put the spotlight on the victim, said Dave Thomas, senior adviser in the Air Force's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. 'Instead of telling victims what to do to keep safe,' he says, 'tell predators, 'Don't rape.' ' (Mike Morones / Staff)
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Sexual assault cases too often put the spotlight on the victim, said Dave Thomas, senior adviser in the Air Force's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. 'Instead of telling victims what to do to keep safe,' he says, 'tell predators, 'Don't rape.' ' (Mike Morones / Staff)

Dave Thomas stumbled into his calling. It was 1980 and Thomas, a junior business and history major at Towson University in Maryland, chose a course called women in perspective to fulfill an elective requirement.

ďI learned a side of history that wasnít taught in my normal history classes,Ē Thomas said recently from his Pentagon office. ďI was learning how, for so many centuries ... women and children were considered chattel. I saw how that structure contributed to violence against women, how it gave entitlement to men in society to treat their property as they saw fit.Ē

The more Thomas learned, the more he became intrigued ó and impassioned ó by issues of violence against women. He steered his college fraternity toward adopting as its social action project an organization that assisted battered women.

When another fraternity tried to show an X-rated film on campus, he helped pass an order banning showings of such films at Towson ó a ban still in effect today, Thomas said.

Thomas went on to serve as a police officer for Montgomery County in Maryland, where he helped start a domestic violence unit. He worked as a senior adviser on violence against women issues for the Maryland governorís office and as program director for domestic violence education at Johns Hopkins University.

It was at Johns Hopkins last year that a colleague told Thomas sheíd submitted his name as a candidate for the job of senior adviser in the Air Forceís revamped Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

The service had put Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward, now retired, in charge of the expanded office as the military dealt with increasing criticism over how it handled sexual assault in the ranks.

When Woodward offered Thomas the position last fall, ďI didnít even have to think about it,Ē he said. ďWhat Iíve done up to now has really prepared me to try to help address the challenges the Air Force and military is facing.Ē

Q. What have you learned so far in your new role?

A. Iíve learned there are a lot of parallels to law enforcement culture. I still know Iíve got a lot to learn. That doesnít mean Iím waiting until Iíve got all this done before trying to effect change.

Iím doing a [training] block on false reports, for instance, to dispel many of the myths surrounding false reporting.

The myth of false reports with respect to sexual assault is something we are battling very much in the civilian world as it is being battled in the military community.


Q. What is the myth?

A. You can talk to grizzled veterans of law enforcement, whether military or civilian, and this is the one crime out of all the crimes we talk about in which thereís this belief that more than half [of the sexual assaultreports] are false. The truth is, based on rigorous research, itís only 2 [percent] to 8 percent. Itís no higher than any other crime. When we go into any type of investigation with the hypothesis this is false, we tend to try to prove our hypothesis.

As a law enforcement officer, no matter what type of crime is reported to me, I go in assuming they are telling me the truth. Because thatís only fair. Now, Iíve got to do an investigation. But itís unfair of me Ö to automatically think theyíre lying. If I do, I should get out of law enforcement.

When we play this game ó well, if an individual is dressed a certain way, what do they expect, or why was this individual drinking ó if thatís the attitude, I have just allowed a predator to hide in plain sight.


Q. Is the biggest challenge facing the militaryís sexual assault prevention and response efforts overcoming this myth?

A. One of the biggest challenges is definitely getting individuals properly educated on the issue. I think once individuals are able to realize theyíre not seeing everything in context, and we can put it into context for them ... they are going to easily start making the right choices when it comes to getting on the right side of this issue.

Most are on the right side. But most donít realize the smoke and mirrors these master magicians ó what I call predators ó put out there.

In order for change to happen, people have to be open to change.

Iíve heard investigators say, ďIíve been investigating these crimes for 20 years.Ē My next question is, ďWhat if youíve been doing it wrong for 20 years?Ē That is the most ludicrous argument you can come up with ... Iím not impressed by that. In fact, Iím depressed by that. If we want positive change and we donít like what weíre getting right now, weíve got to change the way we address it.


Q. Describe your daily work routine.

A. I was brought in to advise on policies, goals, courses of action, to help with the committing of resources to this issue, to coordinate programs and provide any leadership direction I can. I believe in being as directly involved as possible.

Thatís why I wanted to work on the front lines as a police officer, so I could see what was really going on.

There is no typical day. I like that. When you get into a routine, I think you can get lazy. If I have downtime, I try to get up to speed on the culture of the military. Thereís a big difference in the way [sexual assault prevention and response] has been approached in the civilian world as opposed to what the military is involved in now. Iím very encouraged in the way itís being forcefully and thoughtfully addressed [in the Air Force]. By that, I mean not just running out and trying to do a lot of things quickly and not understanding there could be unintended consequences.


Q. Like what?

A. Too often, in sexual assault cases, we put the spotlight on the victim. Even some of these safety measures that some of our [college] campuses take, such as blue lights on campus, focus on the wrong area. Only 10 [percent] to 15 percent of sexual assaults are stranger assaults. The intent is great, but youíre not going to do anything in a large, meaningful way to take down sexual assault. Instead of telling victims what to do to keep safe, they should tell predators, ďDonít rape.Ē


Q. What is the Air Force doing right?

A. One thing Iíve been incredibly impressed with is how the leadership is stepping up to the plate, how the rank and file is realizing they really have to be on the right side of this issue. From what Iíve seen so far, itís not just lip service. They have taken the time to start to get a depth of knowledge about these issues and start to make change because they see it is the right thing to do.


Q. Thereís an ongoing debate about whether sex crimes should be taken out of the chain of command. What do you think?

A. I think [taking it out of the chain of command] is the wrong thing to do. It would really strip commanders of the tools they need to combat the problem. From what Iíve seen thus far, they are coming up to speed, they are learning, and frankly they are disgusted by what theyíve learned.

Itís unfair to expect somebody to do something if they havenít been enlightened on it [and] shown how they can do it better. It means having checks and balances to make sure missteps that perhaps happened in the past donít happen again.

The military justice system has the ability to do a lot more [than the civilian system], like holding people accountable for conduct unbecoming, if nothing else. One of the beauties of the military, when they do start making change, itís wholesale change. The military has a history of addressing large social issues and doing it successfully. None of this happens overnight.

[Racial integration] took years to be totally successful. It wasnít a flip of a switch and all of a sudden everybody was arm in arm singing ďKumbaya.Ē But the harmony is there today. This is going to change also. The military definitely can and will do it.

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