The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Air Force failed to alert the FBI about Devin Kelley. Other branches are much worse at reporting violent criminals.

A military policeman at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Nov. 2. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)

A review of the Defense Department released Tuesday found significant failures throughout the military to report violent offenders to federal law enforcement, a breakdown that allowed Air Force veteran Devin Kelley to purchase the firearms he used to commit a massacre in Texas last month.

Yet while the focus in that case has been the Air Force’s failure to submit Kelley’s criminal history to the FBI’s background-check database, the other military services mostly performed far worse.

Pentagon guidelines require military law enforcement personnel to submit fingerprint cards and final disposition reports to the FBI database if troops are charged with or convicted of certain violent crimes, including domestic violence and child abuse. The Pentagon oversight agency’s new review, which examined 2,502 criminal cases between January 2015 and December 2016 found that one in four fingerprint cards were not submitted to the database. Military law enforcement neglected to submit one-third of the disposition reports, the review determined.

Kelley, who spent one year in a military jail, should have been barred from purchasing firearms and body armor because of his domestic-violence conviction in 2014 while serving at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. But because his crimes were not properly documented in the FBI National Crime Information Center database, he was able to purchase a rifle and another firearm he used to kill more than two dozen churchgoers in Sutherland Springs, Tex., on Nov. 5.

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The Air Force has acknowledged systemic failures in its reporting practices, finding what it called “dozens” of cases in which documents should have been sent to the FBI. Overall, the service failed to submit 14 percent of fingerprint cards and final dispositions in the cases that were reviewed. The Army and the Navy were nearly 30 percent noncompliant when submitting fingerprint cards, with the Army failing to submit disposition reports in 41 percent of the cases that were reviewed — five percentage points more than the Navy.

Even then, the compliance rates for each branch are inflated by the relatively high amount of reporting done by special investigators. Those teams investigate serious crimes. Their counterparts, usually referred to as military police, patrol inside military installations and perform base security. The report, which separates the two, provides a glimpse into their differing cultures and responsibilities.

The Air Force Office of Special Investigations reported only 13 of 588 convictions where final dispositions were not properly submitted — a failure rate of just two percent. Their police counterparts, the security forces, failed to submit 93 out of 155 — a rate of 60 percent, and the widest disparity in the military.

“Investigators are better trained, and even though they’re not as good as they should be, they have more experience” in communicating with and reporting to federal agencies, said Don Christensen, a former Air Force chief prosecutor. Reporting crimes to the FBI is often a collateral duty for military police, and one not all commanders view as a priority, he said.

“Law enforcement is not the focus of military police,” Christensen said. “Security is the focus.”

The Air Force failed to report dozens of violent service members to FBI gun databases

The Marine Corps, by contrast, had the lowest failure rates among its military law enforcement component. It reported a failure rate of 29 percent in the submission of fingerprint cards. The Navy security forces performed the worst at a three-quarters failure rate. Serious crimes committed by Marines are investigated by the Navy’s NCIS.

Air Force officials have blamed the problem on three shortcomings, the report says: “units being unfamiliar with fingerprint card and final disposition report submission requirements, units not using available training, and the lack of installed software for live scan devices the Air Force purchased.”

The Army and Navy did not return requests for comment. Officials with the four branches told the inspector general they would comply with recommendations to shore up training and reporting shortfalls.

While reporting procedures vary across the services, the Air Force has three opportunities to report Kelley’s criminal activity to the FBI. Fingerprint cards should be submitted after probable cause is established, and personnel must submit the final disposition after court proceedings occur. A final fingerprinting should be conducted during confinement, according to Air Force regulations. The special investigators would have probably handled the first step, with the security forces failing to provide oversight in the last two occurrences, Christensen said.

In 2016, two years after his discharge, Kelley walked into a sporting goods store in San Antonio, and after clearing a background check, walked out with a Ruger AR-556 semiautomatic rifle. It was found in front of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs after the killings.

“The reality is, people at top are responsible,” Christensen said, referring to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff David L. Goldfein. “And the people at the top have not made this a priority.”