‘Counterinsurgency’ to Fight U.S. Crime? No, Thanks

After the sickening murder of a 9-year-old boy in Washington, our friend Spencer Ackerman made an impassioned plea: U.S. Central Command chief General David Petraeus for D.C. metro police chief. The idea of America’s leading counterinsurgent taking on one of its most crime-ridden towns definitely has a certain visceral appeal. But militarizing our approach to policing is an idea that could backfire in a hurry.

Spencer’s done an outstanding job of explaining counterinsurgency as a progressive military doctrine: The whole point is to not uphold the social status quo, it’s an attempt to get at the “root causes” of violence through political reform and public works. These days, that’s a job for both the armed forces and the police. “The ’soldiers aren’t cops’ argument isn’t going to fly here,” he wrote. After all, talented military officers are now telling their fellow soldiers to “view neighborhood security as if they were running Kansas City police patrols.”

Ackerman’s not the first to pick up on the idea that smart counterinsurgents could teach the police a thing or two. Last week, Karl Vick of the Washington Post reported on how the police in Salinas, Calif., enlisted the help of the Naval Postgraduate School to help them combat a homicide wave. And earlier this year, Andrew “Abu Muqawama” Exum hosted an interesting discussion thread about using counterinsurgency tactics in Oakland.

At first glance, counterinsurgency (at least the “soft,” population-centric American version) bears a fair amount of resemblance to community policing: It’s all about changing the dynamic in the communities where insurgents operate, encouraging troops to “walk the beat” and bringing in social services. And many of the tools of the modern counterinsurgent — forensic exploitation, pattern analysis and social-network diagramming — would be familiar to any detective. (The Law Enforcement Professionals program for combating roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan even called on retired agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to help take down insurgent networks.) And if you look at the geographic reach and organizational sophistication of some gangs — think Mara Salvatrucha or 18 — and it’s tempting to draw comparisons with, say, a Hezbollah or a Hamas.

But to the COINdinistas I would say: Be careful what you wish for. Counterinsurgency is still a tool for dealing with political emergencies, and it involves a heavy degree of population control. And at home, it’s a bridge too far.

“Policing can be informed by counterinsurgency – and they are in fact similar at some points,” said John P. Sullivan, a lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and an expert on transnational gangs. “But at others they really diverge. So you need to be very, very careful.”

Sullivan, the co-founder of the Los Angeles Terrorism Early Warning Group, told Danger Room the parallels with community policing — patrolling contested areas, identifying centers of gravity — make it tempting to view counterinsurgency as a tool for containing gang violence. But domestic policing and military operations, he added, are inherently different. “It [counterinsurgency theory] is attractive, and I think that people looking at gangs should look at the literature,” he said. “But to wholesale take it in and do it is probably not a good idea.”

Take, for instance, checkpoint operations — a regular feature of any counterinsurgency. No harm, right?  Well, the police in Washington tried that; the whole idea was to “protect” the endangered population of the Trinidad neighborhood by cordoning it off and restricting the movement of vehicles. A federal appeals court struck down the operation as unconstitutional. Same for “cordon and knock” — going house to house, politely searching for contraband. The police tried that in D.C., too, under something called the “Safe Homes Initiative.” It didn’t go down well, either.

That’s not to mention the more potent intelligence tools of control that are essential to fighting insurgents: Human intelligence (i.e. informants); intrusive surveillance; biometric collection. Those methods are available to domestic law enforcement, but the point is counterinsurgency is to establish sweeping civil control. Anacostia ain’t Anbar province (Al Anbar Governorate).  As Sullivan described it, the bar for collecting intelligence on your own population has to be much higher.

“The liberty issues are vital,” Sullivan said. “What gives you legitimacy in the long haul is preserving liberty while providing security. If you don’t end up doing it right, it ends up enhancing the legitimacy of the gang.”

Want to see what a place looks like when counterinsurgency starts to seep into policing? For a softer example, take a look at the United Kingdom. I’m not going to wade into Second Amendment territory here, but suffice to say that the United Kingdom has a pretty expansive surveillance system that in part was developed in response to IRA terror. (It also has a more robust Official Secrets Act.)  For a more dismal example of what happens when the police take enthusiastically to checkpoint operations, take a look at Russia. We’ve been spared much of this, because we tend to intervene in other countries’ counterinsurgencies. Let’s not start looking for one at home.

There is still plenty of overlap between good policing and counterinsurgency “best practices.” Collecting unbelievably fine-grained statistics and holding local commanders responsible for their patrol areas are essential tasks. But we are dealing with two different things. Insurgency, at its heart, is a political struggle. I don’t see drug dealers or street gangs expressing a political grievance, or trying to control of some part of the government. We have an unhappy tendency to declare “war” on problems (drugs, crime, poverty, terrorism) that defy easy solution; do we need to treat a D.C. crime wave like a mini-Malaya Emergency?

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