The Coast Guard’s Maritime Enforcement Specialist (ME) rating was established in 2010 to create a workforce that prioritized the service’s law-enforcement mission. For too long, the Coast Guard’s core law-enforcement function was considered a collateral duty by boat coxswains, bridge watchstanders, engineers, and other specialists. The perception of law-enforcement duties as a sub-specialty would have persisted had it not been for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which reprioritized the service’s missions. The subsequent creation of maritime safety and security teams, and a new emphasis on security and law-enforcement proficiency generated the impetus to finally create a rating solely dedicated to maritime law enforcement (MLE).
However, from its inception the ME rating suffered from an inadequately defined purpose beyond a general notion that having MEs would be an improvement, and flawed assumptions that have negatively impacted its implementation. The time has come to reassess, redefine, and revise the purpose and direction of the ME rating.
A Better-Defined Purpose
In 2003, three influential enlisted leaders, including future Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Charles W. Bowen, co-authored a white paper that advocated for the creation of an MLE-specific rating, noting that elevating MLE to a primary duty would improve professionalism and establish “parity and consistency” with other law-enforcement agencies. Indeed, no other law-enforcement agency that interacts with and polices the American public does so with a collateral duty workforce that has received, on average, a little more than a month of law-enforcement training. However, the same white paper acknowledged that the Coast Guard would never have the fiscal resources or human capital to completely abandon using operational ratings such as boatswain’s mates (BMs) or machinery technicians (MKs) for law-enforcement operations.
Thus, if other ratings continue to perform law-enforcement duties, what is the value of having MEs? This question has never been clearly resolved. There is a growing consensus to finally clarify a proper role for MEs as tactical operators at Coast Guard deployable specialized forces (DSF) units, akin to the recently established Navy special operator rating. However, this solution conflates the ME rating’s role with that of advanced tactical operators. These are distinct mission areas and treating them as one is contrary to the original intent of the ME rating, incompatible with an austere service climate that abhors over-specialization, and, more fundamentally, misdirects a workforce that could otherwise be devoted to a more holistic purpose. Put plainly, it’s wrong to think that all MEs need to be tactical operators, or that all tactical operators need to be MEs. Rather, the ME rating’s core purpose should be to improve the proficiency of the collateral duty MLE workforce. Accordingly, MEs should be responsible for administering, leading, and training across the full spectrum of Coast Guard MLE operations.
A Lateral-Only Rating
Because MEs train and supervise other ratings supporting the MLE mission, the ME rating does not need entry-level apprentices. The Coast Guard should convert all third class maritime enforcement specialist billets to other operational ratings. The ME rating must transition to lateral-entry starting at the E-5 level. A lateral-only rating is viable, as demonstrated by the initial stand-up of the ME rating with more than 1,000 volunteers who had MLE experience while working in other ratings, and subsequently proven with the diver rating, which recruits third and second class petty officers from other ratings.
New MEs should be volunteer applicants already certified as boarding officers who have completed at least two tours performing MLE duties. Moreover, to ensure MEs can lead the full range of MLE operations, their tours should include at least one assignment at a non-DSF unit that conducts conventional law-enforcement missions. Coast Guard personnel seeking to specialize in law enforcement should develop baseline experience in the typical “bread-and-butter” MLE operations, such as recreational boat or commercial fishing vessel inspections. Just as police officers don’t assume supervisory duties or join SWAT units until they have experienced the basics of policing, the Coast Guard’s ME rating workforce must be well-rounded, with diverse MLE mission experience as boarding officers or boarding team members. Furthermore, a two-tour requirement prior to a lateral move to the ME rating would ensure the “feeder” ratings have received an adequate return on their respective training investments.
The ME ‘A’ School should be repurposed as an advanced school that graduates newly minted ME2s (or ME1s or even MECs) as certified ashore boarding officers, firearms marksmanship coaches, and law-enforcement instructors. In addition, the revised curriculum should include basic tactical operator training for any ME candidate who hasn’t previously completed it, to ensure a baseline understanding of this mission. Future rating development should also include the establishment of a field training officer (FTO) program. A best practice in other law-enforcement agencies, FTOs not only train, but also operate alongside new law-enforcement officers to mentor and evaluate them in the field. Certified as FTOs, MEs can fulfill the core objective of enhancing the proficiency of their collateral duty counterparts.
Impact To the Tactical Operator Model
Creating a cadre of MEs that is fewer in number, more experienced, and more senior may concern DSF proponents who cite the significant training investment required to certify tactical operators. Under the lateral-only construct, ME feeder ratings would exclusively fill E-4 billets at DSF units. The E-5 and E-6 billets would be filled by MEs and other ratings. However, leading petty officer and chief petty officer billets would be filled exclusively by MEs. This approach is preferable to using only MEs for all DSF MLE billets. First, it aligns with the proper leadership-centric role of the ME rating. Second, it provides an opportunity for junior personnel to “try out” for DSF units at the E-4 or E-5 level before committing to becoming MEs, while also identifying a pool of personnel with demonstrated ability to qualify as tactical operators and prospective MEs. And finally, this approach ensures DSF units, and law-enforcement detachments in particular, possess a diverse workforce with the maritime experience to perform such tasks as navigating a seized vessel, repairing its engines, or plugging a hole in its hull. Prior experience as a mariner, typically as a BM or MK, better prepares MEs for MLE duty.
An Important Moment for Maritime Law Enforcement
The advent of the ME rating had the collateral effect of a recruiting boom, with many new enlistees drawn to the Coast Guard to become MEs. The move to a lateral-only rating would increase the waiting time to become an ME, perhaps even into a second enlistment in many cases. Some may argue this change would have a chilling effect on recruiting. However, this concern is not so compelling as to forestall a reform that is best for the service.
And, as has always been the case, applicants who join the service to conduct law enforcement still have the opportunity to do so in their first enlistment as a collateral duty. Junior enlistees already have the opportunity to serve on boarding teams at their first units. And under the lateral-only construct, entry-level billets at Coast Guard police departments and deployable specialized forces units would be open to second and third class petty officers from any rating who demonstrate the aptitude.
Time has revealed a need to clarify the purpose of the ME rating beyond simply improving the professionalism of the Coast Guard’s MLE program. Because the Coast Guard is a multimission service that must rely on a multiskilled workforce that performs MLE tasks part time along with other duties, MEs must be employed purposefully within this construct to improve mission effectiveness. This cannot be realized until the Coast Guard eliminates “Maritime Enforcement Specialist Third Class” from its vocabulary.
2. Charles Bowen, Jeffrey Smith, and George Ingraham, “Coast Guard Law Enforcement/Security—the Way Ahead in the 21st Century,” 5 May 2003.
3. “Announcement of Active Duty Maritime Enforcement Specialist (ME) Rating Lateral Selection Results,” ALCGPSC 067/09, 10 November 2009; Maritime Enforcement Specialist (ME) Rating–SITREP One, ALCOAST 243/11, 12 May 2011.