Earlier this month, a crazed man went on a murderous rampage in southern Alabama. Along a 20-mile route across two counties, 28-year-old Michael McClendon killed eleven people, including members of his family and strangers. The crime spree finally came to an end when McClendon took his own life, after an exchange of gunfire with local police.
Investigating seven separate crime scenes along McClendon's route, area police and sheriff's departments were quickly overwhelmed. Desperate for extra manpower to handle "ordinary" law enforcement duties, Geneva County Sheriff Greg Ward reached out to his military counterparts at nearby Fort Rucker.
He knew that earlier in the day, a Lieutenant Colonel from the post left an offer of assistance with a local 9-1-1 dispatcher. "We're here if you need us," said the officer, who has not been identified. Military Times reports the Army official offered generators, lights and other equipment--if needed by local authorities.
After Sheriff Ward made his call, Fort Rucker responded by dispatching a force of 24 military policemen, led by the provost marshal, the installation's senior law enforcement officer. Over the hours that followed, the MPs handled functions like traffic control, allowing civilian police to focus on the killing spree.
While their effort was commendable, it was almost certainly illegal, and could result in the prosecution of senior MPs who participated in the operation. The Posse Comitatus Act largely bans active duty military and Title 10 National Guard units from providing law enforcement functions in the United States, except when it is expressly authorized by the Constitution and Congress.
The approval chain goes something like this: local officials ask for military support through their governor, who forwards the request to the White House. With the commander-in-chief's approval, the Pentagon then provides forces to the local area.
But the support provided in Samson was never approved through the chain-of-command. A spokesman for Alabama Governor Bob Riley says the state never received a request for assistance. Ditto for the White House and the Pentagon. The MP deployment from Fort Rucker was (apparently) coordinated at the local level, raising serious legal questions.
In fact, the issues are so sensitive that the Commander of the U.S. Army's Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) has ordered an investigation. General Martin Dempsey wants to determine how the offer for equipment support became a request for military police--a request that was quickly filled, without notification of the proper authorities. TRADOC is the parent command for Fort Rucker, the home of Army aviation training.
Sheriff Ward's admission fills in one important piece of the investigative puzzle. But we still don't know who approved his request at Fort Rucker, and sent those MPs on their mission. Someone at the post needs to stand up and take responsibility, and help bring this matter to a close.
While some view this incident in conspiratorial terms, it appears to be nothing more than a local sheriff who requested help from a military base--and MPs who tried to provide the assistance, without considering the over-arching legal considerations.
But that doesn't excuse the mistake. There are reasons the military's role in "civilian" law enforcement is limited, and those divisions should be preserved. Apparently, there is also a need for refresher training on how the approval process works, on both sides of the equation.
And finally, perhaps someone ought to devise a "flattened" or streamlined process for requesting (and approving) military assistance. The murder spree in south Alabama unfolded quickly, and with only a handful of deputies, Sheriff Ward and the local police chiefs had more than they could handle. A refined approval process could have delivered needed support more quickly--and without the legal concerns that prompted General Dempsey's investigation.