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Back to Archives | Back to December 2004 Contents 

Military Involved: Whose Problem Is It?

By M. James Willis, Director, Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Salem, Oregon, and Oscar P. Benjamin, Special Agent, U.S. Army CID (USAR), Pennsauken, New Jersey

In the early morning hours on a holiday weekend, patrol officers find a badly injured male on the highway near the community’s entertainment district. The only identification they find is a military ID card that appears to belong to the victim, and it states he is on active duty with the U.S. Army. Since the nearby army depot closed, the department no longer has a local contact for army-related issues. Whom can the department call to get help making notification, confirming identification, and obtaining critical medical information to assist medical personnel at the hospital?
In an unrelated matter, the wife of a service member tells local police officers that she is a victim of domestic abuse. Her husband has returned to his unit in another country. Whose problem is it?

ince the early Nineties, as the U.S. military has moved through phases of base realignment and closure, civilian law enforcement agencies have fewer local military points of contact for information and guidance. The International Association of Chiefs of Police Civil Law Enforcement/Military Cooperation Committee has compiled basic information and a contact list for the military services to assist local law enforcement in communicating with the military.

Identifying Service Personnel

The following is designed to help law enforcement officers identify members of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Armed Services: The U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard are all considered to be branches of the U.S. Armed Services.

Coast Guard: The Coast Guard is organized under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. However, Coast Guard units and personnel routinely migrate to and from military command structures, particularly during periods of hostilities. Also, the Cost Guard is uniquely positioned between a military unit and a law enforcement unit and thus can be of significant assistance to civilian law enforcement since they routinely have and exercise certain law enforcement powers over maritime law, port security, customs, and border protection; the Coast Guard also has broad investigation and enforcement authority in designated matters dealing with hazardous materials and environmental protection.

Reserve and National Guard: Each of the services has a reserve force that in today is virtually indistinguishable from the regular active-duty forces. A patrol officer will have to examine paperwork carefully to determine whether a subject is in the reserve or the active-duty force. In addition, the Army and the Air Force have large National Guard forces, which also appear identical to regular forces. Reserve and National Guard forces are often referred to as Reserve Components. The difference is that regular and reserve forces are federal assets at all times while Army and Air National Guard service members belong to and work for their respective state governors except when ordered to active duty by federal authority.

Identification Documents: When local law enforcement personnel seek to verify the actual status of someone who reports that he or she is a military member or by other appearance leads an officer to believe they may be military, there are certain documents that can be helpful.

The first thing to check is the military identification card, which technically is the Geneva Conventions Identification Card; that title is printed across the bottom front of the card. Although many local law enforcement officers are service veterans, they need to be aware that the current military identification card doesn’t resemble the DD Form 2 that they may have carried a few years ago. The first change is that the color-coding for active duty and reservist cards is quickly going away, although those that remain have upgraded security to include holographs of the service seal. Most identification cards are now an off-white color with the status of the bearer in the upper right quarter under the service name. The status will identify if the person is active duty, reserve, or National Guard. The old paste-on picture under laminate is replaced on all newer cards by an imbedded color digital photo of the service member.

The white cards will also have a smaller grayscale duplicate on the back of the card. The full name, rank, and issue and expiration dates are still there, but all signatures are gone. There is a holograph of the federal eagle in the center and a barcode and gold information chip in the lower left quarter of the card. The barcode and chip are not helpful to local law enforcement. The thumbprint is gone from the back of the card, but the date of birth, the social security number, and limited medical information such as blood type are identified on the card.

Pass or Liberty Card: An active-duty or reserve soldier, sailor, airman, or marine may not have any other identifying military documents on his or her person when he or she is encountered near his or her base, camp, ship, or station. Military personnel some distance away from their unit or ship should have a pass or liberty card. A pass or liberty card authorizes a service member to be away from their place of duty and may specify hours the service member may be away. This pass will not exceed four days and will normally limit the distance the service member may travel. This authorization does vary by service and commander.

Travel Orders: Active-duty service members who are clearly a long distance from their unit or ship, or who appear to remain in the area for more than four days, should have travel authorization or leave orders. Travel authorizations are written orders that indicate the service member is moving from one assignment to another. The order may indicate that a delay en route is authorized, but it will always show a date the service member must report to the new assignment. Authorized leave papers means the service member is on vacation and is thus authorized to travel.

Uniform Code of Military Justice

The Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ, governs the conduct of service members. For the civilian law enforcement officer this is tantamount to the state crimes code and rules of criminal procedure. In the military, the unit commander or ship’s captain has the ultimate authority for law, order, and discipline among the troops. To carry this out he or she is given broad authority to investigate, charge, and punish a member of that command.

Investigations initiated and conducted by military police, the Army Criminal Investigation Command, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and the Air Force Office of Special Investigation must be referred to the commander for charging and punishment, if warranted. In cases where the member is found guilty in a court martial, the punishment meted out or recommended by the court must be approved by and carried out by a military commander. As crimes are progressively more serious, the authority may transfer to higher elevations of command.

How does this affect local law enforcement? There are situations when a service member commits an offense or crime when it is clearly a UCMJ matter (soldier-on-soldier crime committed on a military base) or clearly a civilian matter (reckless driving on a state highway, county road, or city street) or any one of a number of situations wherein it could benefit local law enforcement to confer with military authorities to determine whether the best resolution to the case would be under state codes or the UCMJ. Some factors to consider:

  • Which code has the best (or only) statute or article to cover the crime or incident?

  • Which code will support a more timely conclusion to the case?

  • Which code has the most appropriate sanction for the crime or offense?

  • Which code could save the jurisdiction a significant expense?

It is important to note that National Guard personnel, unless federalized, are assets of the governor and they are then not subject to the UCMJ. Additional benefits of the UCMJ and military authority may accrue if a military officer or noncommissioned officer (NCO) arrives on the site of the problem. The officer or NCO may demand more complete information from a service member than a civilian law enforcement officer may demand in an ordinary encounter, and the officer or NCO can issue orders to service members that far exceeds normal police authority over civilians. For instance, an officer or NCO can order a service member to return to his or her base, camp, ship, or station merely for being improperly attired.

Another factor local law enforcement need to consider is the Posse Comitatus Act, which essentially prohibits the use of military forces in a direct law enforcement role among the civil population in the United States. While there appears to be some loosening of the restriction at hand, the general prohibition remains in effect. Any use of military personnel in support of civilian law enforcement operations is closely reviewed by the Judge Advocate General Corps (military lawyers) to ensure compliance with the Posse Comitatus Act. Again, National Guard personnel when not federalized are assets of the respective governors and may hold and exercise such law enforcement powers as the legislature and governor may convey.1

Resources Available to Local Police

Because some local police departments have not established local or regional resources with the military, the IACP Civil Law Enforcement/Military Cooperation Committee has developed the following resources. These phone numbers are at the service headquarters in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area. In many cases they will not have all of the answers that local police need immediately, but they will confer with officers to resolve any problems they can resolve by telephone. Thereafter they will work through the problem to get the right people notified or find the information that is needed.

Please remember two things when dealing with the watch officers and noncommissioned officers at these operations centers. First, they want to help, but like everyone else in public service they have to abide by restrictive privacy guidelines. This may hinder some passing of information immediately. Second, the military services are huge organizations spread across the globe, and although computers may enable them to retrieve certain information quickly they may still require some time to resolve a problem or find the person that can respond. Also, local departments need to take into account that time zone differences, current hostilities, or the means of communications may be an additional delaying factor.

1For a more detailed treatment of the Posse Comitatus Act, see John W. Probst, “The Posse Comitatus Act: What Does It Mean to Local Law Enforcement?,” The Police Chief 71 (July 2004): 46–48.

Law enforcement and security executives are asked to treat the following contact information as for official use only in order to maintain the integrity of operations.

Air Force World Wide Locator: 210-565-2660
Army Watch: 703-695-4695
Coast Guard Operations Center: 202-267-2100
Marine Corps Operations Center: 703-695-7366
Navy Operations Center: 703-695-0232
National Guard Bureau: 703-607-9043*

*Note: This number is for the National Guard Bureau Joint Operations Center Communications team in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area and should be used only when direct communication with the state military command structure is not possible. It is strongly recommended that law enforcement and security executives who have not already done so establish emergency communication protocols with their respective state military commands.


From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 12, December 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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