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Unit commanders in the Navy and Marine Corps will no longer have investigative authority over sexual harassment allegations, according to a department-wide message sent Friday by Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro.

Effective immediately, the message says, commanding officers must escalate complaints to the next higher-level commander, who will then appoint an investigating officer. That investigator should be from outside the command and “shall not be familiar with the subject or the complainant,” the message says.

The interim policy includes a carve-out to allow an investigator from within the same command to investigate, however, if that next-level commander determines an outside investigation would “unreasonably interfere with the command’s ability to complete its mission.” Such a carve-out requires sign-off from at least a one-star admiral or general, the message says.

The change comes on the two-year anniversary of the murder of 20-year-old Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén, who complained about sexual harassment at Ft. Hood, Texas, before her killing.

Del Toro’s policy will stand until the service funds and staffs independent investigators to handle sexual harassment complaints. However, those complaints are still to be handled within the military chain of command. Last year the military stripped sexual assault investigations from commanders but left harassment up to commanders.

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A bill submitted in both chambers of Congress Friday seeks to address that discrepancy.

In a statement, California Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, who introduced the bipartisan Sexual Harassment Independent Investigations and Prosecutions Act in Congress, said it fixes the “massive oversight” of the 2022 budget.

“SPC Guillén was sexually harassed by a superior prior to her disappearance and dismemberment,” Speier said in a statement. “No action was taken on her complaint. Many other victims of sexual assault and violent crimes in the military have shared with me how they also suffered from sexual harassment. As long as sexual harassment courts-martial continue to be handled through the military chain of command, victim’s voices will be stifled and overwhelmed by a system stacked against them at every turn.”

The Navy did not issue a statement or news release announcing the policy shift. On Friday, Lt. Cmdr. Devin Arneson, a Navy spokesperson, confirmed the change is in effect across the Navy department, including the Marine Corps.

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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