COMMENTARY | The Associated Press reports that U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Bales, the man accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians in a nighttime shooting spree, allegedly sexually assaulted a woman and battered her boyfriend in a drunken confrontation in 2008.
It turns out that Bales has had a bit of a rocky past, with another incident in 2008 occurring when Bales was suspected of a hit-and-run, an arrest in 2002 for fighting with casino security guards, and a citation for possession of alcohol on a Florida beach in 1998.
According to the Washington Post, Bales was also found guilty of financial fraud before joining the military.
While possessing alcohol on a beach may be excusable in the grand scheme of things, how did a man with a conviction for financial fraud, an arrest for assault on security guards, and accusations of sexual harassment and battery enter into, and remain in, the U.S. Army?
One possibility is the fact that few people, aside from Bales himself, were aware of his multiple negative interactions with the law. He paid a fine for the incident related to the suspected hit-and-run, completed anger management for the drunken assault on the casino guards, and the citation was later dropped in the alcohol-on-the-beach incident. Three incidents that should have been recorded somewhere seem to have vanished from Bales' permanent record.
I understand we all want second chances. I understand why many people should have records expunged. Everyone makes mistakes and, for most of those mistakes, a lifetime of punishment and shamed explanation is drastically unfair.
But shouldn't the U.S. military, which provides its personnel with lethal weapons, expensive equipment, and generous benefits funded by taxpayers, have access to expunged criminal records? I agree that ordinary civilians shouldn't be able to freely Google up a history of someone's police records going back ad infinitum, but the U.S. military, due to its important role and important trust, should have access to police records, including ones that are expunged, erased, or otherwise unavailable to the public.
Why? Because those records provide important warnings and red flags. If a soldier is behaving oddly or in a worrisome manner, it would be invaluable for commanding officers to be able to find out whether or not the behavior is part of a possible pattern. In the case of Robert Bales, not knowing led to tragedy.