Military Law Enforcement for Crime Writers

Over the past year, I've assisted four fellow authors with questions about U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement operations. I helped them as best as I could, drawing on my 13 years of active and reserve experience in the Coast Guard. I began to realize the field of military law enforcement is a bewildering environment for most writers, particularly those who never served in uniform. With this primer, I hope to provide some clarity to the subject.

First, let me say that besides the Coast Guard, I also served in a component of the California National Guard as executive officer of a state military police unit. I also spent six years as a medical specialist with a local sheriff's department reserve force.

There are, as you probably know, five branches of the military in the United States. Besides the Coast Guard (yes, it is a branch of the military), there are the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Each of these branches has its own police force and criminal investigators.

Undoubtedly, the best-known military law enforcement agency is the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS. Best known because of the popular TV show, NCIS is also the employer of my own fictional character, Linus Schag of The Killing Depths and my forthcoming The Butcher’s Bill. NCIS agents are usually, but not always, civilians and are charged with investigating felony criminal cases involving Navy and Marine Corps personnel or property, including espionage and terrorism. NCIS operates independently of any base or command, reporting directly to the Secretary of the Navy.

NCIS, however, does not have authority to investigate crimes not related to the Department of Navy. For this reason, the agency does not have an office in Los Angeles, despite the NCIS spin-off, NCIS Los Angeles. That's because there are no Navy bases in Los Angeles County. NCIS Southwest Regional Headquarters is located in San Diego. The closest NCIS office to Los Angeles is located at the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station in Orange County, south of L.A.

Navy masters-at-arms (MAA) are law-enforcement-trained sailors who act as the police and security force on Navy bases. MAAs perform general policing duties such as patrolling bases, handing out traffic citations, responding to on-base criminal violations, and operating brigs aboard ships. MAAs also operate entry gates and respond to any security threats that might arise. They are augmented and work closely with their civilian federal police counterparts who provide similar L/E duties on military bases.

The term "military police" or MP is also well known. As generic as it sounds, however, military police refers only to the soldiers and Marines who specialize in law enforcement operations, either on base or in a combat zone. In the former case, MPs—like Navy MAAs—act as the police and security force on Army bases. They work for the base Provost Marshal essentially the chief of police for a base. In a combat zone, MPs provide security on forward bases and convoys, operate checkpoints, and provide traffic management and direction to long convoys.

Also like Navy MAAs, Army and Marine MPs work closely with civilian federal police officers employed on their bases.

The United States Army Criminal Investigation Command, like NCIS, is an autonomous investigative agency that reports to the Secretary of the Army through the Office of the Army Provost Marshal General. Despite its full name, it's known as the CID, a throwback when it was called the Criminal Investigative Division. CID is responsible for investigating any crimes involving Army property or personnel. CID special agents can be civilians, or enlisted or commissioned soldiers. Most often, they are warrant officers.

One of the best novels I've ever read involving a CID investigator is Nelson DeMille's The General's Daughter. If you haven't read it, and you're interested in this topic, pick up a copy.

The Marine Corps also has a Criminal Investigation Division which investigates reports of alleged, suspected, and actual criminal conduct, as well as family violence. Unlike the Army's CID, however, Marine CID investigators work for the Provost Marshal of the base to which they are assigned. Major crimes reaching outside the Marine Corps CID's jurisdiction are referred to NCIS.

Air Force law enforcement airmen have had various names over the years. Army MPs assigned to air bases became Air Police when the Air Force became an independent service in 1947. Since then, they've also been called Security Police and, now, Security Forces. On bases, the Security Forces provide basic police services. They are also charged with defending the base when deployed to a combat zone, including conducting infantry patrols "outside the wire."

The Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI), like the Navy's NCIS and the Army's CID, is an autonomous law enforcement agency that reports directly to the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force. OSI special agents can be enlisted or commissioned airmen or civilians, and conduct investigations into crimes involving Air Force personnel or property, as well as counterintelligence and protective service operations outside of the traditional Air Force chain of command.

The U.S Coast Guard is the most unusual of the services. Though a branch of the military, the Coast Guard falls under civilian control. Originally, it was part of U.S. Customs. Later, it was transferred to the Department of Transportation. It currently resides under the Department of Homeland Security. That's because, unlike the other services, the Coast Guard is also a law enforcement agency, one of the most powerful police agencies in the country.

Like the Navy, the Coast Guard has an autonomous criminal investigative service (CGCIS) charged with investigating crimes involving USCG property and personnel. Unlike the Navy, however, all petty officers, warrant officers, and commissioned officers are technically law enforcement officers. Not all Coast Guard personnel will engage in L/E operations during their careers, but a very large portion does.

Under Section 2 of Title 14 USC, the Coast Guard has authority to enforce all federal laws on all federal waterways, which include coastal waters, the Great Lakes, and great rivers like the Missouri, Mississippi, and Colorado, and, to some extent, on the high seas. That jurisdiction is wide-ranging, and includes anti-drug and immigrant smuggling, and anti-terrorism operations.

By international treaties, the Coast Guard also enforces international maritime laws, including anti-piracy laws. The U.S. Navy has no authority to enforce anti-piracy laws, though it does operate task forces aimed at deterring piracy.  The only exception is by special international agreement or in the event pirates attack a U.S.-flagged vessel. The Navy also has no authority to enforce anti-smuggling laws.

To get around restrictions on Navy ships, special Coast Guard law enforcement detachments (LEDET) are deployed on Navy vessels. The Coast Guard LEDETs take part in any boarding of a suspect vessel and initiate any arrests. 

Coast Guard small boats, patrol boats, and cutters are all armed to varying degrees for law enforcement operations. Each of those vessels has, at a minimum, a two-man boarding team that has the authority to stop and search vessels suspected of criminal activity. Boarding teams also perform safety inspections of vessels.

In addition to search-and-rescue operations, much of my last six years on a Coast Guard reserve boat crew were spent conducting anti-smuggling operations along the U.S.-Mexican maritime boundary off the coast of San Diego. That boundary line lies at 32-dgrees, 32-minutes north latitude. The name of my new publishing imprint, 32-32 North, is recognition of that time I spent on border.