The Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Air Force do not usually present the required criminal data to the FBI for inclusion in national databases, but the Air Force has shown improvements in recent years, according to a new report published by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Defense.
The Inspector General examined more than 2,500 criminal convictions in 2015 and 2016 that required the military to report to the FBI. They found persistent lapses during that two-year period, from a failure rate of 14 percent for Air Force convictions to a 41 percent failure rate for Army convictions.
In total, hundreds of military criminal convictions and fingerprint records were not shared with the FBI. This means that they would not appear in criminal record checks or criminal record searches of law enforcement officers.
The high rate of failures is not exactly news for the inspector general's office, which has sounded an alarm about military crimes that inform many previous times.
"Our report once again identified serious deficiencies throughout the Department of Defense by reporting criminal background information to the FBI," said Glenn Fine, Assistant Chief Inspector in a statement emailed to NPR. "It is essential that the Department of Defense fully implement our recommendations to correct past deficiencies and prevent future failures in the reports."
A long-standing problem receives new attention
The Department of Defense has known of widespread failures for decades, as NPR has previously reported. But the lapses have received a new public scrutiny from a mass shooting that was enabled by a failed military report.
In November, Devin Kelley, a former aviator, opened fire on a church in Texas and killed 26 people, including a pregnant woman, who according to Texas law counts as two victims.
Kelley had been convicted of domestic violence in a court martial in 2012, which disqualified him from owning weapons. But because the Air Force Office of Special Investigations did not report that conviction to the FBI, Kelley went through multiple background checks when buying the weapons he used in the attack.
In response to that shooting, the Defense Department's Office of the Inspector General (or DoD OIG) is evaluating what went wrong in the Air Force and is conducting a broader analysis of the reports on crimes of the armed services in general. That investigation is still ongoing.
But the newly launched report was already underway: it was announced in February and the investigation ended in October, before Kelley's attack.
Problems in all services, but Air Force Improvement
The analysis, released to the public on Tuesday, followed up on a previous report that found that the Marines, the Air Force, and the Navy they frequently did not present fingerprints to the FBI between 2010 and 2012. (Army data were not included due to "data validation" problems). Sending those fingerprints is mandatory; without fingerprints, a criminal record can not be added to the FBI's main interstate crime database.
The Marines and the Navy have not shown significant improvements since that previous evaluation. The Marines went from a failure rate of 30 percent to a failure rate of 29 percent. The Navy record worsened, from 21 percent failures to 29 percent.
But the Air Force was a bright spot. A failure rate of 31 percent in 2010-2012 was reduced to a failure rate of 14 percent in 2015-2016.
And, according to the report, the same unit that did not report to Kelley in 2012 had an unusual success in sharing information with the FBI in 2015 and 2016.
In the cases covered by this report, the Office of Special Investigations The Air Force sent 98 percent of the felony criminal convictions to the FBI: a failure rate of 2 percent, at a time when the military branches did not report nearly a third of comparable crimes.
AFOSI also submitted all but 2 percent of the required fingerprints, while the Army lost 21 percent and the Navy did not submit 25 percent.
The DoD OIG report still notes that more than a dozen Air Force crimes were not adequately reported, and urges AFOSI – like any other law enforcement agency that examines – to review its records and processes to look for total compliance.
Problems with guidelines, training and supervision
The DoD OIG report identifies a series of generalized problems that contribute to the lack of reports.
On the one hand, there are official guidelines.
The military branches have investigation units that handle the majority of crimes in the armed services. They have guidelines to inform that they coincide with the official DoD policy, that is, they notice the obligation to send data to the FBI.
But the security and police units of the Army, Navy and Air Force that handle faults had an orientation that conflicted with the real policy. Each of these groups had reporting failure rates north of 60 percent, much higher than the rates of serious crimes. (The Marine Corps has no guidelines, so the officers followed the guidelines for the investigators – they had a misdemeanor in reporting failure rates of about a third, similar to the crime rates).
Then there is the question of training. Even researchers who receive precise guidelines may not receive adequate instruction. A special investigator at the army police school, for example, is taught to take fingerprints for solve crimes, but he is not taught that those fingerprints should be sent to the FBI.
There is also the question of supervision. In many cases, law enforcement organizations had "no mechanism" to ensure that officers in the field were presenting the records properly. Routine inspections, designed to detect omissions such as failure to report, often did not verify whether the data was sent to the FBI.
In the OSI of the Air Force, where compliance was highest, official guidelines were accurate, training programs taught staff adequate procedures (with, in some cases, refresher courses) and there are "several layers of supervision "ensuring compliance, says DoD OIG.
In addition, AFOSI tracks cases in a program that will not allow cases to be closed until a "supervisor certifies … that fingerprint cards and disposition reports have been sent to the FBI."
As part of the DoD OIG report, as in previous reports, the four branches agreed to review their policies and programs and make changes to ensure that fingerprints and convictions are sent to the FBI as necessary.
The inspector general has also asked law enforcement agencies to verify their records for crimes that date back to 1998 and, wherever records are available, send the necessary information to the FBI.
NPR has communicated with the four military branches for comments.