Defence Force staff found guilty by court martial are exempt from providing a DNA sample. Photo: Getty Images

More than 20 years after New Zealand police began collecting criminal’s DNA, military staff are still exempt. That’s now likely to change.

Last year, in a room in front of her superiors, a female navy officer described how she was repeatedly groped by a male colleague.

It was uncomfortable viewing for all, as the proud defence force employee broke down recounting her experience.

She told the court martial that unfortunately, these types of experiences were not uncommon in the military.

While serious crimes occur both within the Defence Force and the civilian world, the way they are recorded and prosecuted vary greatly.

Recently it was revealed by Fairfax that nearly two dozen military personnel had faced charges of indecent assault and rape in the past two decades, with none of those found guilty having their crimes recorded on their civilian criminal records.

More than 20 years ago, New Zealand forged into new territory after becoming one of the first countries to introduce mandatory DNA recording for people found guilty of qualifying crimes.

The Criminal Investigations (Blood Samples) Act forced those convicted of an offence that could result in a prison sentence of more than seven years to surrender a DNA sample.

Its introduction allowed the police to create a DNA databank that has been used to solve hundreds of cases since.

But, largely unknown to the public, members of the Defence Force found guilty of the same crimes through a court martial were not under the same obligation.

Change is happening

Late last year the Defence Force sent a request to its Minister Gerry Brownlee seeking approval to consult with police and the Ministry of Justice about fixing the law.

In the document, released under the Official Information Act, Lieutenant General Tim Keating proposed a partnership regime with police.

Essentially, when a member of the Defence Force was found guilty of a qualifying crime a police constable would be asked to issue a databank compulsion order, requiring the offender to produce a bodily sample.

Brownlee saw sense in the proposal, writing to his ministerial colleagues urging their cooperation to fix an “unacceptable” situation.

Defence Force media advisor Alex Lewin said the change was being worked on alongside the police and Ministry of Justice.

There had been informal work done in the past few years but only recently was a comprehensive proposal agreed on.

“There was no specific impetus for this, but it was a timely proposal that reflects the desire to align the military system with current civilian practice.”

The Defence Force could not say how many people had avoided having their DNA collected because they were exempt, but noted police already had the power to collect samples if personnel were investigated under the civil system.

Operation RESPECT

The move follows a wider programme by the Defence Force to address an inappropriate sexual culture within its ranks.

It may have been publicly announced in the middle of a high-profile court martial involving sexual harassment – which cynics noted helped take the heat off the Defence Force – but Operation RESPECT was overdue.

Research by the Defence Force itself that led to the move showed “persistent sexism” exists in the military.

Results from the Air Force Culture Review were alarming, with sexist, chauvinistic behaviour prevalent particularly among older men, while others could not differentiate between harmful and consensual sexual behaviour.

It recommended a dedicated sexual assault response team be introduced, alongside more women in leadership roles.

General manager of the Wellington Sexual Abuse Help Foundation, Conor Twyford, said it had been a heartening moment when the Defence Force had hired five specialist staff to address the problematic culture.

But the fact defence personnel were exempt from many forms of civilian justice seemed to be an “anachronistic loophole”.

DNA evidence could be an important tool in any sexual violence case.

“If you’ve been involved in harmful sexual behaviour, there’s kind of a natural justice thing that should apply.”

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