The Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force all regularly fail to submit required crime data to the FBI for inclusion in national databases, but the Air Force has shown improvement over the past several years, according to a new report released by the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General.
The inspector general looked at more than 2,500 criminal convictions in 2015 and 2016 that the military was required to report to the FBI and found persistent lapses during that two-year period, ranging from a 14 percent failure rate for Air Force convictions to a 41 percent failure rate for Army convictions.
All told, hundreds of military criminal convictions and fingerprint records were not shared with the FBI. That means they would not show up in gun-purchase background checks or criminal record searches by law enforcement agents.
The high rate of failure is not exactly news to the inspector general's office, which has sounded an alarm about military crime reporting many times before.
"Our report again identified serious deficiencies throughout the DoD in reporting criminal history information to the FBI," Glenn Fine, principal deputy inspector general, said in a statement emailed to NPR. "It is critical that the DoD fully implement our recommendations to correct past deficiencies and prevent future lapses in reporting."
A long-standing problem receives fresh attention
The Department of Defense has known about pervasive reporting flaws for decades, as NPR has previously reported. But the lapses have received new public scrutiny since a mass shooting that was enabled by a military reporting failure.
In November, Devin Kelley, a former airman, opened fire in a church in Texas and killed 26 people — including a pregnant woman, who under Texas law counts as two victims.
Kelley had been convicted of domestic violence in a court-martial in 2012, which disqualified him from gun ownership. But because the Air Force Office of Special Investigations failed to report that conviction to the FBI, Kelley passed multiple background checks as he purchased the guns he used in the attack.
In response to that shooting, the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General is evaluating what went wrong at the Air Force and conducting a broader analysis of crime reporting by the armed services as a whole. That investigation is still underway.
But the newly released report was already in the works: It was announced in February, and the research ended in October, before Kelley's attack.
Issues across all services, but Air Force improves
The analysis, released to the public on Tuesday, followed up on a previous report that found the Marines, Air Force and Navy frequently failed to submit fingerprints to the FBI between 2010 and 2012. (Army data were not included because of "data validation" issues.) Submitting those fingerprints is mandatory; without fingerprints, a criminal record can't be added to the FBI's primary interstate crime database.
Neither the Marines nor the Navy has shown significant improvement since that earlier evaluation. The Marines went from a 30 percent failure rate to a 29 percent failure rate. The Navy's record grew worse, from 21 percent failure to 29 percent.
But the Air Force was a bright spot. A 31 percent failure rate in 2010-2012 was reduced to a 14 percent failure rate in 2015-2016.
And, according to the report, the same unit that failed to report Kelley in 2012 was unusually successful at sharing crime data with the FBI in 2015 and 2016.
In the cases covered by this report, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations sent 98 percent of felony-level criminal convictions to the FBI — a 2 percent failure rate, at a time when the other branches of the military were failing to report about a third of comparable crimes.
The Air Force OSI also submitted all but 2 percent of required fingerprints, while the Army missed 21 percent of them and the Navy failed to submit 25 percent.
The Defense OIG report still notes that more than a dozen Air Force felonies were not properly reported and urges the Air Force OSI — like every other law enforcement agency it examined — to review its records and processes to pursue full compliance.
Problems with guidelines, training and oversight
The Defense OIG report identifies a number of pervasive problems contributing to the lack of reporting.
For one thing, there are the official guidelines.
The military branches have investigation units that handle most felonies in the armed services. They have guidelines for reporting that match official DOD policy — that is, they note the obligation to submit data to the FBI.
But the Army, Navy and Air Force police and security units that handle misdemeanors had guidance that conflicted with actual policy. Each of those groups had reporting failure rates north of 60 percent, far higher than the rates for felony-level crimes. (The Marine Corps police have no guidance at all — so officers followed guidelines for investigators instead. They had misdemeanor reporting failure rates of about a third, similar to the rates for felonies.)
Then there's the question of training. Even investigators who are given accurate guidelines might not receive proper instruction. A special investigator in Army police school, for instance, is taught how to take fingerprints to solve crimes, but not taught that those fingerprints have to be sent to the FBI.
There's also the matter of oversight. In many cases, law enforcement organizations had "no mechanism" to ensure officers in the field were properly submitting records. Routine inspections — designed to catch omissions like failures to report — often didn't check whether data were submitted to the FBI.
At the Air Force OSI, where compliance was the highest, the official guidelines were accurate, training programs taught staff proper procedures (with, in some cases, refresher courses) and there are "several layers of oversight" ensuring compliance, the Defense OIG says.
In addition, Air Force OSI tracks cases in a program that won't allow the cases to be closed until a "supervisor certifies ... that the fingerprint cards and final disposition reports have been submitted to the FBI."
As part of the DOD OIG report — as in previous reports — all four branches have agreed to review their policies and programs and make changes to ensure that fingerprints and convictions are actually submitted to the FBI as required.
The inspector general has also asked the law enforcement agencies to check their records for crimes dating to 1998 and, wherever records are available, send the necessary data to the FBI.
NPR has reached out to all four military branches for comment.