[Ppnews] The Other Side of the COIN: Counterinsurgency and Community Policing

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Sep 2 11:42:42 EDT 2011

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.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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