Federal Lawsuit Reveals Air Force Cover Up

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Executive Summary

In 2017, Protect Our Defenders (POD) published a groundbreaking report that brought substantial and persistent racial disparities in the military justice system to light. POD’s report, based on information obtained through a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, led Congress to mandate an investigation into racial disparities and data collection in the U.S. military.

The subsequent investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirmed widespread racial disparities first identified by POD. The 2019 GAO report concluded that the military failed to identify and address the causes of such disparities. In 2020, Congress directed the DoD to transform how the military tracks, monitors, investigates, and addresses racial disparities in the justice system.

In response to POD’s initial FOIA request in 2016 and its subsequent report, the U.S. Air Force claimed it was taking a series of steps to identify and address racial disparity within its justice system. This included, according to the Air Force, conducting an internal investigation and establishing an expert working group to put forward recommendations.

Documents obtained by POD through litigation show that the working group touted by the Air Force met only briefly and made only superficial recommendations, none of which have apparently been implemented by Air Force leadership. Instead, the Air Force has engaged in a multi-year effort to keep the findings and recommendations of its working group hidden, forcing POD to file suit in federal court.

In quashing the Air Force’s attempts to conceal information about the findings and recommendations of its own disparity working group, a U.S. District Court in Connecticut referred to the Air Force’s investigation as a “mystery,” questioned whether it conducted any “real governmental decision making process,” and accused it of trying to change its story and “plug gaps” over time.

The Air Force’s ongoing failure to address the disparities identified by POD and the GAO is particularly troubling because POD’s 2017 analysis and reporting by USA Today found that the Air Force has the highest racial disparities of any military service branch for court-martial and non-judicial punishments. Collecting, analyzing, and reporting reliable data on race and ethnicity is essential to assessing and eradicating racial disparities in the military justice system. For over 25 years, prior to the recent disclosures, no data regarding the demographics of servicemembers involved in the military justice system had been made public. The Air Force’s responses to POD’s lawsuit underscores the importance of transparency and constant Congressional oversight in beginning to address inequities within the military justice system.

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You can also read Part I of this report, Findings of Substantial and Persistent Racial Disparities Within the United States Military Justice System, published in June 2017.