Thursday, March 19, 2009

What Happened in Samson

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.

8 comments:

LetUsHavePeace said...

Spook: Posse comitatus is a dodgy precedent for those of us who care about individual freedom in the United States. It sounds all right on its face, but its real purpose was – and still is – to prevent the Army for defending individual rights – as a literal application of the doctrine would have done in the Samson matter. PC has the same awful pedigree as Plessy v. Ferguson. Both were dodges around the clear meaning of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments: PC as an objection to the U.S. Army’s enforcing the Constitutional prohibitions against discrimination by race or former condition of servitude, and Plessy as allowing discrimination on the completely specious grounds that it was legitimate as long as it applied not to individuals but to groups. There are no Constitutional restrictions on the U. S. Army's providing assistance to state and local law enforcement or on the Army itself being the law. The U.S. Army has been the law in national parks (they ran Yellowstone), Territories that were not States, including the first Indian Reservations, and - as already noted - the places of insurrection. Thanks for your wonderful blog.

kitanis said...

When I worked as a Security Forces Augmentee... our jurisdiction ended at the gate.. something happened beyond there.. it was up to the city, or county sheriff, or U.S. Marshalls.

At the same time.. I was a part-time reserve officer for the city I lived in that was up next to the base. They did not want or desire the base cops help in anything. To much jurisdiction hassel and too much non-cordination training.

sturmvogel said...

Posse Comitatus prevents active duty troops from exercising law enforcement powers. So, depending on what exactly the MPs did, Posse Comitatus may not have been violated at all. They can't arrest or search people, but traffic control and the like is probably OK.

LGD said...

In the light of possible domestic terrorism, I would like military base police to be available or have more discretion to assist local LEA without a lot of rigmarole.

On the other hand, I can see a terrorist group produce mayhem near a base just so the base is left relatively unguarded while personnel are dealing with a local crime spree.

Ed Rasimus said...

Frankly, there are several aspects of the incident that bother me. First, the Provost Marshall should have known better than to take it upon himself to deploy an armed, uniformed detachment off the post.

If he did so without gaining authorization from his commander (I'm unfamiliar with whether Ft. Rucker is organized as Bde,Div,Rgmt or what,) then it would seem he is quite literally "operating off the reservation."

But, more bothersome to me is the implication of a more free and common application of such excursions into the civilian community. The recent abortive attempt in IA (IIRC) to conduct a small town house-to-house "training" search activity for NG troops supposedly as Iraq deployment prep comes to mind.

I've long asserted that while the general officer level is careerist and political, the company and lower field grade officer ranks are patriotic and Constitution-devoted. The mass of the force, I've assumed would be reluctant to enforce authoritarian suspension of our rights such as gun confiscation.

I'm beginning to question my confidence in that.

sturmvogel said...

Ed,
Don't forget that Posse Comitatus doesn't apply to NG troops since they're not federal.

Run Amok said...

Also., don't overlook that the Posse Comitatus act explicitly does not apply to the Navy (nor the USMC as it is subordinate to the Navy).

sturmvogel said...

It's not strictly under the Posse Comitatus law, but note:

10 U.S.C. § 375. Restriction on direct participation by military personnel

The Secretary of Defense shall prescribe such regulations as may be necessary to ensure that any activity (including the provision of any equipment or facility or the assignment or detail of any personnel) under this chapter does not include or permit direct participation by a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps in a search, seizure, arrest, or other similar activity unless participation in such activity by such member is otherwise authorized by law.

So, effectively, the Navy and Marines are under the same restrictions as are the Army and Air Force.