Marines create law enforcement battalions

Marines at Camp Pendleton , Calif., were practicing crowd-control techniques last week as part of the new police battalions, three of which were activated last month. GRANT HINDSLEY / Associated Press
Marines at Camp Pendleton , Calif., were practicing crowd-control techniques last week as part of the new police battalions, three of which were activated last month. GRANT HINDSLEY / Associated Press
Posted: July 23, 2012

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. - The Marine Corps has created its first law enforcement battalions - a lean, specialized force of military police officers that it hopes can quickly deploy worldwide to help investigate crimes from terrorism to drug trafficking and train fledgling security forces in allied nations.

The Corps activated three such battalions last month. Each is made up of roughly 500 military police officers and dozens of dogs. The Marine Corps has had police battalions off and on since World War II but they were primarily focused on providing security, such as accompanying fuel convoys or guarding generals on visits to dangerous areas, said Maj. Jan Durham, commander of the 1st Law Enforcement Battalion at Camp Pendleton.

The idea behind the law enforcement battalions is to consolidate the military police and capitalize on their investigative skills and police training, he said. The new additions come as every branch in the military is trying to show its flexibility and resourcefulness amid defense cuts.

Marines have been increasingly taking on the role of street cop along with their combat duties over the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they have been in charge of training both countries' security forces. Those skills now can be used as a permanent part of the Marine Corps, Durham said.

The war on terrorism has also taught troops the importance of learning how to gather intelligence, secure evidence, and assist local authorities in building cases against criminal networks. Troops have gotten better at combing raid sites for clues to track insurgents.

They also have changed their approach, realizing that marching into towns to show force alienates communities. Instead, they are being taught to fan out with interpreters to strike up conversations with truck drivers, money exchangers, cellphone sellers, and others. The rapport-building can net valuable information that could even alert troops about potential attacks.

But no group of Marines is better at that kind of work than the Corps' military police, who graduate from academies just like civilian cops, Durham said. He said the image of military police patrolling base to ticket Marines for speeding or drinking has limited their use in the Corps. He hopes the creation of the battalions will change that, although analysts say only the future will tell whether the move is more than just a rebranding of what already existed within the Corps.

The battalions will be able to help control civil disturbances, handle detainees, carry out forensic work, and use biometrics to identify suspects. Durham said they could assist local authorities in allied countries in securing crime scenes and building cases so criminals don't end up back out on the streets because of mistakes.

"Over the past 11 years of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, some lessons learned painfully, there has been a growing appreciation and a demand for, on the part of the warfighter, the unique skills and capabilities that MPs bring," Durham said.

Durham said the Marine Corps plans to show off its new battalions in Miami this month at a conference put on by the Southern Command.

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