What are military police?

Each branch of the U.S. Armed Forces has its own law enforcement division


By Police1 Staff

Military police are the law enforcement officers of each branch of the service. In the U.S., each branch has its own law enforcement division, which is responsible for maintaining security and discipline and enforcing laws on military property, such as bases and installations.

In areas where combat operations are taking place, the military police operate under a different mandate and are more closely associated with combat than with law enforcement.

A U.S. Army police officer stands patrol in Fort Hood, Texas.
A U.S. Army police officer stands patrol in Fort Hood, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Both men and women can join the armed services with the intention of becoming a member of the law enforcement team. Each branch has its own requirements for training. 

The jurisdiction of the military police force extends to members of that branch of the service, as well as to anyone on military property. When military police forces are stationed in war zones, their responsibilities include protecting vehicle routes, doing reconnaissance and detaining soldiers who have disobeyed orders, deserted their post or committed other offenses.

The law enforcement arm of the U.S. Army is called the Military Police Corps. The Air Force military police force goes by the name U.S. Air Force Security Forces. The Navy’s law enforcement arm is called Masters At Arms and the Marines’ is known as the Provost’s Marshal’s Office. Within each of these police agencies are a number of ranks and divisions which have responsibilities in different areas of law enforcement.

The military police are expressly prohibited from having police powers over the civilian population under the Posse Comitatus Act, which was enacted in 1878. In instances where martial law is declared, this act is temporarily suspended, giving them the authority to enforce the law within the civilian population. The U.S. Coast Guard, which enforces maritime laws and does have authority over civilians, is exempt from this act. Also, the National Guard, which is under the auspices of each state’s governor, has the authority to enforce civilian law when needed. An example of this is during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, when the National Guard is called in by the governor to assist the regular police in enforcing civilian law.

Each branch has its own distinctive uniform. Normally, they carry hand weapons such as the M9. In combat situations, they might also be equipped with an M4 carbine, an M203 grenade launcher and a 12 gauge shotgun.

Within each branch of the service there are also civilian police departments. These are uniformed law enforcement officers who are called DOD (Department of Defense) police. They are responsible for enforcing the Uniform Code of Military Justice, as well as state, local and federal laws, as well as the laws of their particular military installation.

If you’re thinking of becoming a military police force member, you should discuss the police recruiting process with your recruiter. He or she will be able to advise you as to the best method to meet that goal once you join the service. Also, investigate which branch of the service is most in need of military police, so you know where you have the best chance of reaching that goal since not everyone can serve in that capacity.

This article, originally published March 2011, has been updated.

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