In the military, reporting and investigating crime differs from civilian communities. In most civilian communities, individuals report crimes to their local police departments. The police then conduct investigations and make initial decisions about whether to charge someone for minor offenses. The police refer major offenses to the local district attorney, who decides whether to file serious charges. The local district attorney, acting on behalf of the community, then decides how both minor and major cases are to be handled in court. Local courts try the cases and impose punishments.
Under the direction of the President, military commanders are responsible for maintaining law and order in the communities over which they have authority, and for maintaining the discipline of the fighting force. Reports of crimes by servicemembers ultimately come to their commanders' attention from law enforcement or criminal investigative agencies, as well as reports from individual servicemembers. In many minor cases involving military offenses, there has been no formal investigation by any law enforcement agency (including military police).
To help commanders decide how to resolve charges, commanders must make a "preliminary inquiry" into any allegations against a member of the command under military procedural Rules for Courts-Martial (R.C.M.) found in the Manual for Courts-Martial. These informal inquiries are sometimes referred to as R.C.M. 303 Inquiries. The commander can conduct this inquiry himself, appoint someone else in his command to do it, or, as happens in very serious cases, request assistance from civilian or military criminal investigative agencies. Although usually informal, the commander can require a more formal inquiry and a written report.
As noted, in complex or serious cases, commanders may need specialized, investigative assistance from military criminal investigative organizations to decide whether to prefer (initiate or "press") charges. Although these organizations are independent of the command and possess independent investigative authority, they also provide professional investigative support to commanders upon request.
When the commander finishes the preliminary inquiry, he must make a decision on how to resolve the case. Unlike civilian communities, where a district attorney decides whether or not to "press" charges, in the military, commanders make that decision. The commander could decide that no action at all is warranted. Or he could take administrative action, such as an admonition or reprimand, or making an adverse comment in performance evaluations, or seeking discharge of the member from the service. The commander also possesses nonjudicial punishment authority under the procedures of Article 15, UCMJ. The commander may also determine that criminal charges are appropriate. The "preferral" of charges, similar to "swearing out a complaint" in civilian jurisdictions, initiates the court-martial process.