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Learnings from Kunar: Police Shootings and the Lessons of Counterinsurgency

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", please click here.)

Toward the end of December, the Cleveland DA failed to secure a grand jury verdict in the tragic Tamir Rice shooting. (Summary, a boy playing with a toy gun was shot by police officers within seconds of them arriving on scene.) Radley Balko in the Washington Post and German Lopez on Vox both pleaded with fellow media members to distinguish between things that are “legal” and “things as they should be”. Ideally, those two things are aligned. In the case of police shootings, they aren’t.

The police officers in Cleveland were (maybe) legally justified. It doesn’t mean they should have fired their weapons.

I can’t help but read that distinction about policing and see a connection to counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, based on my experience in and studying those two countries. For deployed soldiers, there was a wide gap between what was legal and what we should be doing. As I wrote quite a bit when we launched the blog, a lot of the techniques, tactics and procedures units used on the ground directly undermined the mission...but they kept troops safe. Like police shooting, those tactics were legal (under UCMJ).

But the connection to COIN goes beyond the “what’s legal versus what’s right” distinction. Really policing and counterinsurgency are different stops on the same spectrum. Take Jamelle Bouie’s article on Tamir Rice. It screams counter-insurgency rights and wrongs. Here is his analysis of police officers putting their lives at risk:

“Part of policing is risk. Not just the inevitable risk of the unknown, but voluntary risk. We ask police to “serve and protect” the broad public, which--at times--means accepting risk when necessary to defuse dangerous situations and protect lives, innocent or otherwise. It’s why we give them weapons and the authority to use them; why we compensate them with decent salaries and generous pensions; why we hold them in high esteem and why we give them wide berth in procedure and practice.”

How does that sentence differ from a paragraph I would have written about soldiers deploying to Afghanistan at the height of the war? One of the inspirations of this blog was the amazing contradiction at the heart of being a soldier, “Mission First, People Always”. Soldiers deploy and care more about returning home safely than fighting to win the war. This is a perfectly natural feeling, but it probably says more about whether we should have fought a war in Iraq than anything else.

The difference between policing and COIN is we have to have police officers. It isn’t optional. And we need cops to serve in high-crime areas. That said, accepting risk as opposed to hurting innocent civilians is a prerequisite of the job.

But that leads into the last COIN connection. The policies that keep officers safe in the short term endanger them in the long run. Just like Afghanistan and Iraq. And I’m not just writing about the failed war on drugs (that most police departments support because it comes with tons of federal funding). As Bouie continued in his Slate piece:

“One last point: Changing this is in the best interest of police officers. Yes, abandoning “safety at all costs” means accepting additional risk. But it also means an emphasis on de-escalation in policing, which—in communities that need good policing—engenders more trust for police departments. With more trust comes more community cooperation and more resources for solving crime. The same is true for more and greater accountability. In the long run, both create safer environments for citizens and police.”

Just like in Afghanistan and Iraq, police forces can’t do it alone. Force alone does not cow a population. And unjust force or unfair laws make a society unstable. So stopping “suspicious individuals” may find drugs or weapons, but if those things are done without probable cause, then you are creating an aura of hostility.

The future of policing isn’t better weapons, more aggression or body cameras. It is about police departments that work within and with their communities. It isn’t about staying safe, but deescalating situations to keep everyone safe, both the police and the communities they protect.