Despite the name, and many similar duties, military police are more than just cops in camouflage.
The name can be deceiving. Military Police (MP) -- known as Master-at-Arms (MA) in the Navy, and Security Forces Specialist in the Air Force -- are employed at every major base and installation to protect people and property and enforce the law. Military law, that is: the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Their jurisdiction is limited to military property and personnel. They’re usually most visible manning gates and security checkpoints, and enforcing basic traffic laws and military regulations. (A friend of mine was once threatened with a ticket for wearing a white undershirt as civilian attire – because we Marines are a funny folk.) But their duties also include investigating felony-level crimes and terrorism, and coordinating with other law enforcement agencies when servicemembers get themselves in a mess out in town.
Things change overseas, where MPs stop writing traffic tickets and start running combat operations (although a friend of mine once got a ticket on a base in Iraq for running a stop sign –- because, again, we were Marines.) Still protecting lives and property, they’re usually the standing security team for motor convoys through hostile territory -– providing lead, rear, and roving vehicles to the column –- with an obviously more lenient “jurisdiction,” since they’re operating as infantry. They may also train and coordinate with local police and security, as in Afghanistan and Iraq after the US-led invasion of those countries left their law enforcement systems –- well, non-existent.
All branches require MPs have normal color vision that’s correctable to 20/20, as well as a driver license (mentioned in all except the Air Force’s regulations.)
Clear speaking ability is mentioned specifically by Air Force and Marine requirements, but is surely necessary in any branch, since MPs communicate with offenders, bystanders, and lawyers regularly.
Criminal histories, particularly drug and domestic violence convictions, are particularly damaging to the aspiring MP. Similarly, a recorded history of personality, nervous, mental, or emotional disorder is generally disqualifying in all the services.
Here are a few other specific requirements mentioned by each service’s regulations and recruiting literature:
- Army: Applicants must be at least 18 years old and get a Skilled Technical score of 91 on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB).
- Navy: To get the Master-at-Arms rating, you must be a born or naturalized citizen of the United States and eligible for a Secret clearance. On the ASVAB, applicants need a Word Knowledge score of at least 43, and a total of 95 points from Word Knowledge and Arithmetic Reasoning.
- Air Force: For Security Forces, you’ll also need to be eligible for a Secret clearance. The Air Force also recommends high school courses in government, behavioral science, computer, and communication skills.
- Marine MPs must be US citizens who’ll reach age 19 before they finish Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) school and score at least 100 in the General Technical category of the ASVAB. The Corps also has a “this tall to ride” sign for MPs: For unspecified “safety reasons,” Marines shorter than 64 inches (5’ 4) are barred from the MOS without hope of a waiver.
No matter the course, you can expect military law enforcement training to include managing traffic, criminal investigations, prisoner handling, and riot control, as well as covering unique military subjects like crew-served weaponry, Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT), and the laws of war.
- Army training for new recruits takes place at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and lasts 20 weeks. If that sounds like a long time to spend in the “Show Me State,” remember it includes basic training and combat training on top of actual classroom and on-the-job instruction for the MOS. Interestingly, the course website mentions that during the last phase of training, soldiers receive the “perk” of reduced Drill Sergeant supervision. (I’m sure they get yelled at by someone else anyway.)
- The Marines also send their MPs to the Army’s schoolhouse at Ft Leonard Wood, but since they’ve already graduated their own boot camp and combat training, they only attend the Basic Military Police Course for three months. Always hungry for the company of fellow Leathernecks -- until they show up and start stealing your stuff -– Marines share bunks at the Leonard Wood Marine Detachment with students training at other Army schools to become motor transport operators, chemical/biological/radiation/nuclear defense technicians, and engineers.
- Navy Masters-at-Arms students attend 45 days of training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, at a course aptly described here by Navy public affairs.
- Air Force Security Force students also go to school at Lackland, but for approximately three months.
Visit Army Credentialing Opportunities On Line (COOL) to see certification and licensing opportunities for Military Police (MOS 31B) or Navy COOL for the Master-at-Arms rating. The Air Force Credentialing and Education Research Tool suggests certifications for the Security Forces Technician (3P0X1) as well as the Criminal Justice program at Community College of the Air Force. Additionally, Navy MAs and Marine Corps MPs may be eligible for apprenticeships as government police officers or security specialists through the Department of Labor’s United Services Military Apprenticeship Program.
Like most military occupations, the military police provide upward mobility in rank and assignments, as well as opportunities to diversify yourself with additional training and assignments such as military working dog handler, physical security specialist, or special reaction team.
It’s also a common belief among potential enlistees that MP experience is the best military preparation for a career in civilian law enforcement. It seems like a sound argument on the face of it, but depending on your future career goals, it may not be necessary.
I don’t discourage those who want to start their law enforcement careers in the military, but don’t panic if your recruiter tells you that MP, MA, or Security Forces positions are full up. Here are just a few examples of local and federal law enforcement agencies, and how their standards of entry measure up against the idea that MP is the only way to go:
- New York City Police Department (NYPD): There’s no mention of prior law enforcement experience anywhere in their job qualifications. Two years of any active military experience can take the place of their higher education requirements.
- Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD): Meanwhile, on the west coast, there’s still no mention of prior law enforcement experience. But in addition to several (fairly universal) veteran benefits, the “Green to Blue” program also offers about $2000 additional annual salary for every two years of military experience, up to six years.
- Secret Service: Once you go Federal, you’ll notice that being an MP might be more helpful –- but still not crucial. The Secret Service is known for actively recruiting from the military and gives veterans special consideration under the Feds Hire Vets initiative. But their bachelor’s degree requirement can also be satisfied by three years’ experience in law enforcement or investigation. Bingo. (Their uniformed division, however, has qualifications more like the NYPD and LAPD.)
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI): Of course you’d need a degree to tangle with Hannibal Lecter. So to be an FBI Special Agent, the bachelor’s degree requirement isn’t waived even if you’ve got three years’ experience -– in fact, you need both. (Note: If you work your butt off during off-duty hours, you could earn the degree and the experience simultaneously during your enlistment.) The FBI doesn’t demand specific law enforcement experience, but law enforcement and military experience are both “critical skills” that receive special hiring priority.