Commentary

No Base Is an Island

Why the Military Needs Formal Agreements with Civilian Authorities on Domestic Violence Cases

By Laura Hickman

Laura Hickman is an associate behavioral scientist at RAND and an associate professor of criminal justice at the RAND Graduate School.

Photo: Laura Hickman

If a domestic violence incident occurs on a military installation, who has jurisdiction over the incident? If you answered, “the military installation,” you would be only partly right. Civilian authorities always have jurisdiction over domestic violence incidents that occur off installations regardless of whether the alleged offender is an active-duty service member, but in some cases, civilian authorities may also have jurisdiction over (and be first responders to) incidents that occur on military installations.

These jurisdictional issues lie behind one of the key recommendations of the Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence. The task force, which just finished a comprehensive three-year review of domestic violence in the military, recommended that the U.S. Department of Defense “require installation/regional commanders to seek MOUs [memorandums of understanding] with local communities to address responses to domestic violence.” These MOUs would spell out details of collaborative relationships intended to prevent and to reduce domestic violence involving service members.

While issuing such a uniform MOU policy may be relatively simple, implementing it is not, because each installation faces unique challenges depending on where it is located. In many states, legal changes have broadened the population covered by domestic violence laws, from current and former spouses, to present or former cohabitants, to present or former noncohabiting dating partners, to other persons related by blood and/or marriage, to persons with a child in common regardless of cohabitation. While California law covers all categories, Virginia law covers only three of them. Then again, California police officers have discretion as to whether to make arrests in domestic violence incidents, while arrest is mandatory in Virginia, except under special circumstances.

It becomes even more complicated for installations, because responses vary also by communities within a particular state. For example, communities differ in how much they emphasize establishing and enhancing a coordinated community response to domestic violence. Such a response can involve cooperative relationships among a myriad of agencies, including criminal justice, social service, and nonprofit agencies; citizen groups; major employers; religious and medical communities; and schools.

Finally, installations often abut more than one civilian jurisdiction. In fact, service members at larger installations may live in several different municipalities or different counties, and some service members in installations near state borders (like the U.S. Army’s Fort Campbell in Kentucky) may live in different states.

Under all of these circumstances, MOUs between installations and civilian authorities in neighboring communities could help strengthen collaboration on responses to domestic violence. Installations may already have informal relationships with civilian authorities, but the relationships need to be formalized to ensure that they are not possibly jeopardized by turnover in personnel.

In contemplating the content of such MOUs, it is clear that “one size will not fit all.” To help installation commanders, the department of defense has been developing example MOUs that may serve as models. Such models are useful, but given how varied the civilian communities are, all key agencies within all communities are unlikely to agree to a uniform “model” MOU. Uniform models cannot respond to local conditions in enough detail. Given this, it makes sense that when the department of defense distributes the models, it should be made clear to installation commanders that the models represent not the end of the process but rather starting points for working with neighboring communities and for hammering out details.

Many benefits can come from collaborations between civilian communities and installations to address domestic violence. These relationships, however, must be locally grown and carefully tended. Even when MOUs are established, continuing investment is required from all parties to ensure ongoing compliance with the letter and the spirit of the agreements.