Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Other Side of the COIN: Counterinsurgency and Community Policing

An abridged version of a longer article

The Other Side of the COIN:
Counterinsurgency and Community Policing

by Kristian Williams

The following discussion of U.S. domestic
counterinsurgency is adapted and condensed with
permission from "The Other Side of the COIN:
Counterinsurgency and Community Policing" by
Kristian Williams. Williams is a member of Rose
City Copwatch in Portland, Oregon, and the author
of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in
America (Soft Skull, 2004; South End Press,
2007). The full paper appeared in the May 2011
issue of Interface, and a full list of
bibliographic sources can be found there.

The unrest of the 1960s left the police in a
difficult position. The cops' response to the
social movements of the day -- the civil rights
and anti-war movements especially -- had cost
them dearly in terms of public credibility, elite
support, and officer morale. Frequent and overt
recourse to violence, combined with covert
surveillance, infiltration, and disruption
(typified by the FBI's COINTELPRO operations),
had not only failed to squelch the popular
movements, it had also diminished trust in law enforcement.

The police needed to re-invent themselves, and
the first place they looked for models was the
military. Military training, tactics, equipment,
and weaponry, made their way into domestic police
departments -- as did veterans returning from
Vietnam, and, more subtly, military approaches to
organization, deployment, and command and
control. Police strategists specifically began
studying counterinsurgency warfare.

"Counterinsurgency" (or "COIN" is military
jargon) refers to a kind of military operation
outside of conventional army-vs.-army
war-fighting, and is sometimes called
"low-intensity" or "asymmetrical" combat. But
counterinsurgency also describes a particular
perspective on how such operations ought to be
managed. This style of warfare is characterized
by an emphasis on intelligence, security and
peace-keeping operations, population control,
propaganda, and efforts to gain the trust of the people.

This last point is the crucial one. As U.S. Army
Field Manual, FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency,
declares: "Legitimacy is the main objective."

So during the period of police militarization,
the cops also began experimenting with a
"softer," more friendly type of law enforcement
-- foot patrols, neighborhood meetings,
police-sponsored youth activities, and attention
to quality-of-life issues quite apart from
crime. These techniques eventually coalesced
into an approach called "community policing."
Both militarization and community policing arose
at the same time, and in response to the same
social pressures. The advantages the state
receives from each aspect are fairly
clear: Militarization increases available force,
but as important, it also provides improved
discipline and command and control. It re-orders
the police agency to allow for better
coordination and teamwork, while also opening
space for local initiative and officer discretion.

Community policing, meanwhile, helps to
legitimize police efforts by presenting cops as
problem-solvers. It forms police-driven
partnerships that put additional resources at
their disposal and win the cooperation of
community leaders. And, by increasing daily,
friendly contacts with people in the
neighborhood, community policing provides a
direct supply of low-level information.

Such information is vital, because COIN theorists
advocate preemptive action against budding
rebellions. The problem is that, at the early
stages, subversion is not obvious and the state
may not know that a threat exists. In order to
anticipate conflict and prevent an insurgency, as
FM 3-24 explains, COIN strategists "require
insight into cultures, perceptions, values,
beliefs, interests and decision-making processes
of individuals and groups." The resulting
intelligence work is concerned with questions that are primarily sociological.

The U.S. government's mapping of the American
Muslim population should be viewed in this
light. In 2002 and 2003, the Department of
Homeland Security requested -- and received --
statistical data, sorted by zip code and
nationality, on people who identified themselves
as "Arab" in the 2000 census. And in February
2003, FBI director Robert Mueller ordered all 56
Bureau field offices to create demographic
profiles of their areas of operation,
specifically including the number of
mosques. One Justice Department official
explained that the demographics would be used "to
set performance goals and objectives" for
anti-terror efforts and electronic
surveillance. Similarly, in 2007, the LAPD began
planning its own mapping program, dressed in the
rhetoric of community policing. As the L.A. Times
reported, the "Los Angeles Police Department's
counter-terrorism bureau proposed using U.S.
census data and other demographic information to
pinpoint various Muslim communities and then
reach out to them through social service agencies."

By working with welfare services, churches,
non-profits, and similar organizations, police
can insinuate themselves into the fabric of
neighborhood life, gain access to new sources of
information, and influence community
leaders. Sometimes the police can used these
relationships to channel and control political
opposition, moving it in safe, institutional, and
reformist directions, rather than toward more radical or militant action.

We saw this dynamic at work in Oakland after
transit police shot and killed an unarmed black
man in 2009. In practice, preventing riots
became the primary focus of the institutionalized
left, as local nonprofits and churches
collaborated with police to contain community
anger and channel it into ritualized
protest. There is no guarantee that resistance
would have gone further had the nonprofits not
intervened, or that greater conflict would have
won greater gains. But their intervention
certainly helped to contain the rebellion, and
closed off untold possibilities for further
action. That is, quite clearly, what it was intended to do.

We also see the logic of counterinsurgency at
work in police anti-gang campaigns: The creation
of databases listing suspected gang members; the
mapping of the social environment, illustrating
connections between gang members, associates,
families, etc.; the development of community
contacts, especially with local leaders -- all
these police practices mirror the techniques of
military occupation. Police intelligence efforts
are then paired with a campaign of persistent
low-level harassment -- stops, searches, petty
citations, and the like. Each instance of
harassment offers the cops the opportunity to
collect additional information on the gang
network while at the same time creating an
inhospitable environment for those associated with gang activity.

For example, in Salinas, California, the Monterey
County Gang Task Force conducts mass-arrest
"round-ups," makes random traffic stops, and
regularly searches the homes of gang members on
parole or probation. The sheer volume of such
activity is astonishing: Since it was formed in
2005, the Task Force has been responsible for
21,000 vehicle or pedestrian stops, 5,000 parole
and probation "compliance" searches, and 2,800 arrests.

Furthermore, since February 2009, combat veterans
from Iraq and Afghanistan have been serving as
advisors to Salinas police, with the stated aim
of applying counterinsurgency tools to local
anti-gang efforts. Along with their expertise,
the military advisors also arrive with software,
including a computer program that maps the
connections between gang activity, individual
suspects, and their social circles, family ties, and neighborhood connections.

This police-military partnership is occurring
alongside a renewal and expansion of the SPD's
community policing philosophy. The new community
focus (encouraged by the military advisors)
includes Spanish language training, "Gifts for
Guns" trade-in events, an anonymous tip hotline,
senior-citizen volunteer programs, a larger role
for the Police Community Advisory Council, and
police-sponsored after-school activities.

Salinas police have also initiated partnerships
with other local, state, and federal law
enforcement agencies, including the Marshals, the
ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms), the FBI,
and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The most
spectacular product of these partnerships, so
far, was a set of coordinated raids on April 22,
2010, codenamed "Operation Knockout."

The raids -- coming after months of investigation
-- mobilized more than 200 law enforcement agents
and resulted in 100 arrests, as well as the
confiscation of forty pounds of cocaine, fourteen
pounds of marijuana, and a dozen guns. Operation
Knockout was intended, not only to disrupt the
targeted gangs, but to serve as a warning to
others. Deputy Police Chief Kelly McMillin said:
"We're going to follow quickly with call-ins of
specific groups that we know are very active. . .
. We are going to tell them that what happened
on the 22nd could very well happen to them."

Such anti-gang efforts are always implicitly
political, especially as they become permanent
features of life in poor Black and Latino
communities. Though ostensibly aimed at
preventing gang violence, counter-gang campaigns
inevitably lead police to monitor the entire
community. One Fresno cop explains the intended
scope of his department's gang files: "If you're
twenty-one, male, living in one of these
neighborhoods, been in Fresno for ten years and
you’re not in our computer­then there’s definitely a problem.”

With the emergence of the counterinsurgency
model, the state has ceased to view subversives
in isolation from the society surrounding
them. Increasingly, it has directed its
attention -- its intelligence gathering, its
coercive force, and its alliance building --
toward the population as a whole. Repression, in
other words, is not something that happens
solely, or even mainly, to activists; and it not
just the province of red squads, but of gang
enforcement teams, neighborhood liaison officers,
and even police advisory boards. It comprises
all those methods -- routine and extraordinary,
coercive and collaborative -- used to regulate
the conflict inherent in a stratified
society. Our task is to decipher the politics
implicit in these efforts, to discern the ways
that they preserve state power, neutralize
resistance, and maintain social inequality.

Our further task is to respond. An effective
response to repression must include an offensive
component -- an attack against the apparatus of
repression, which (if successful) will leave the
state weaker and the social movement
stronger. This outcome, of course, should be the aim from the start.

But it is, in a sense, misleading to speak solely
in terms of responding to repression. Repression
exists already. It intervenes preemptively. It
forms part of the context in which we
act. Oppositional movements cannot avoid
repression; the challenge, instead, must be to overcome it.

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