CG unveils new details in noose investigation
By Patricia Kime - Staff writer
Posted : Wednesday Sep 26, 2007 18:07:07 EDT

The Coast Guard is launching a criminal investigation into the discovery this summer of two nooses, one in the seabag of a black Coast Guard Academy cadet and one in the office of a white faculty member at the New London, Conn., campus, a Coast Guard official said Tuesday.

The investigation follows two administrative inquiries that did not reveal any potential suspects in the crimes, said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Dave French, an academy spokesman.

On July 22, a black third class cadet aboard the training barque Eagle found a noose inside his seabag. On Aug. 2, a female diversity instructor found a noose on the floor of her academy office during a break in instruction.

The incidents were first reported Saturday in The Day newspaper of New London. They were not disclosed by the Coast Guard when they occurred.

Coast Guard officials initially said the incident on board Eagle occurred July 15. The service announced Tuesday that the actual date the incident occurred was July 22.

On July 14, a week before the third classman found the six-inch-long noose, made of string, two members of the Eagle’s crew — a white third class female cadet and a black enlisted crew member — were allegedly assaulted while on liberty together in Veracruz, Mexico.

French said the subsequent administrative investigation did not determine a link between the two incidents. French could not say how many black sailors were aboard the Eagle on that cruise.

Immediately following the noose incident, Eagle skipper Capt. Christopher Sinnett conducted race-relations workshops aboard the ship.

At the same time, diversity training was ramped up at the academy; it was during a break in that training Aug. 2 that the female staff instructor found the second noose — another six-inch-long one made of string — near her desk, French said.

When the second noose was found, the Eagle was at sea and had not yet returned to New London from its summer tour, French said.

However, a number of personnel who were on the Eagle on July 22 may have been at the academy Aug. 2, when the second incident occurred.

According to French, the ship had a “phase change” in late July in Miami, with some cadets heading home, or to the academy, for summer liberty.

“CGIS is looking into all this as part of their investigation,” French said Wednesday.

“This is a hate crime and we absolutely would hold people accountable for such,” he also said.

It is not clear what charges could be brought against any suspects if they are found.

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, no specific crimes are listed as “hate crimes,” although evidence that links any motivation to race, color, gender or sexual orientation may be considered by military judges or court members in meting out sentences, explained Brent Harvey, an attorney with the Washington D.C.-based firm Feldesman, Tucker, Leifer and Fidell.

“In and of itself, it’s not a crime, but I can certainly see — and I won’t speculate in this specific case — instances where this type of action might be part of a criminal case,” Harvey said.

The discoveries follow nearly two years of racial unease at the Coast Guard Academy that began in December 2005 with the investigation and subsequent court-martial of a black cadet.

Former 1st Class Cadet Webster Smith, a 22-year-old from Houston, Texas, became the first cadet ever court-martialed at the 130-year-old school.

Smith was convicted of indecent assault, extortion and sodomy. His accusers were all white female cadets.

During his criminal proceedings, Smith filed a civil rights complaint against the Coast Guard and several academy officers, saying he was treated differently during the investigation than others who had committed similar offenses because he is black.

The Department of Homeland Security notified Smith on Aug. 20 that his complaint had been denied.

Smith has appealed his criminal conviction, and that process is ongoing.

As a result of the court-martial and its aftermath, which included the reassignment of then-academy superintendent Rear Adm. James Van Sice for issues allegedly unrelated to the Smith case, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen convened a task force to study leadership, culture and climate at the school.

That group made several recommendations regarding increasing minority recruitment at the school and improving diversity training.

French said that at the time the nooses were found, the academy was implementing task force recommendations.

On Tuesday, he said the academy will hold intense “experiential” race relations workshops for students and staff in October.

“No amount of training is going to change somebody’s attitudes and beliefs. What will change them is to challenge those beliefs face-to-face,” French said of the training.

Blacks account for roughly 4 percent of the Coast Guard Academy’s student body of 1,000 students.

Overall, the Coast Guard has 2,498 black personnel out of 40,699 active-duty members.

On Tuesday, Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Coast Guard and maritime transportation subcommittee, asked Allen to examine the incidents thoroughly.

“I was utterly shocked when I heard about these implicit threats on both a student and an officer,” Cummings said through a press release. “Racial discrimination and intolerance have no place in either the academy or the Coast Guard, and these incidents run directly against the efforts being made to increase diversity throughout the Coast Guard.”

Former Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Vincent Patton, the Coast Guard’s top enlisted member from 1998 to 2002, said the service faces a tough road in recruiting black Americans but praised its current diversity programs.

He recalled one of his first duty stations in Cheboygan, Mich., where he was the first black person many area residents had ever seen.

“We have units that are located in areas that have little and sometimes no minority population. That’s not to say that minorities can’t do well there, but the challenge is that young African American men and women, especially from urban areas, want to be welcomed in and happily know they will end up where they are not alone,” Patton said.

To the Coast Guard, he added: “Don’t stop what they are doing. I think the process, what they are doing — conducting climate surveys, diversity training across-the-board, both at the level of cadets and the staff members — is working,” Patton said.