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Winning the Battle but Losing the Crime War: Three More Connections to COIN and Police Shootings

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

As Michael C wrote about last week, the problems with police shootings are incredibly similar to the problems America faced fighting counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Editing that post, we realized we had at least three more connections between policing in America and counterinsurgency theory abroad.

1. Poor Community Relations

To bluntly summarize a major disagreement we had with the mainstream criticism of population-centric counterinsurgency: nation building works, but America (and its military) never really tried it.

Framing it simply, if you rebuild infrastructure (roads, power, cell phones, etc), provide healthcare, and stimulate the economy, the local population will have a really hard time hating you. If you’re a potential insurgent, you’re probably not going to hate the country or military that got you a job, cured your son’s club foot, and modernized your nation. But America and its military never committed to that strategy or vision of COIN. Most of the money that was spent was wasted or stolen, and way more money was spent on our soldiers’ welfare than on the local populations. (For example, Caesar salad and steak Fridays on Michael C’s base in Iraq.)

Same with local cities and municipalities in regards to poor communities. Again, probably summarizing too simply, in response to conservative pushes for lower taxes, many cities began using poor communities as a source of income to make up for lost tax revenue. (Instead of rebuilding infrastructure--a la Flint’s current water crisis--or providing quality education.) This includes cities that make citizens pay for their own legal proceedings, including being represented by a public defender, which is a constitutional right.

They then added fines on top of fines. Add to that the rise in plea bargaining instead of trials, and you have a system designed to make money at the expense of disadvantaged communities. For an anecdote, just look at Ferguson, Missouri, who went, “so far as to anticipate decreasing sales tax revenues and urging the police force to make up for the shortfall by ticketing more people.”

We haven't even mentioned civil forfeiture.

The COIN connection is pretty simple: relationships between poor, minority communities and police couldn’t be worse, and these policies explain why.

2. Night Raids

If you ask the door kickers in JSOC and SOCOM, one of the most effective tools of counter-terrorism is “night raids”. Using the advantage of darkness (because of our night vision goggles), our elite forces raid houses of suspected terrorists at night, without warning.

If you ask the civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the least effective tools of counter-insurgency is “night raids”. Why? Because when a raid goes poorly, the civilians inside usually die. As Frontline reported on it in their episode “Kill/Capture”, “botched raids and harrowing accounts from Afghan citizens have sparked protests and raised serious questions about whether the raids are alienating the local population in ways that fuel the insurgency’”. The episode features several emotionally jarring stories of innocent people being killed in fights with JSOC forces. Unfortunately, night raids have resumed in Afghanistan. (It's the opposite of above; you'd have a hard time supporting a country or government that just killed your family.)

In the US, the clearest equivalent to night raids is the “no-knock warrant”. Once a non-existent tactic just 20 years ago, then a special tactic only for extreme circumstances, police around America now conduct 20,000 to 40,000 no-knock raids a year. Radley Balko’s book Rise of the Warrior Cop has several examples of completely unneeded no-knock raids that resulted in dead (sometimes unarmed) citizens and the ACLU released a report in 2014.

This isn’t limited to just these SWAT raids. A lot of the policies that police use to keep safe--the same way night raids keep special operators safe or no-knock raids keep SWAT safe--escalate the danger in the long run. I’m thinking of stop and frisk, police militarization and warrantless searches. They also terrify the population.

3. De-escalation

Running through many, but not all, of the police shootings caught on tape in the last two years is the idea that the shootings were avoidable. In many cases, the police officers never attempted to deescalate the situation.

Take the John Crawford III shooting in a Wal-mart in Ohio. Police officers storm the Wal-mart after reports a man is waving the gun around. They don’t confirm the reports. They didn’t evacuate the people. They don’t even try to make contact with him. They just fired.

It is mind-boggling the police officers didn’t try to deescalate the situation. At no point do they try to avoid violence. If anything, they assume it is happening and try to preempt it. The result is a dead citizen. And in the John Crawford III situation (or Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and others), the path to de-escalation was so simple. A recent investigation by The Week shows that a majority of police departments don’t require officers to minimize violence or deescalate the situation.

The analogy to COIN is again obvious, but harder to implement during deployment. In counter-insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq, one of the common pieces of advice I heard was to act tough. I was told something like, “the toughest [expletive] doesn’t get messed with”. Basically, US forces had to strike fear in everyone so no one dared to attack us. This basically meant some units were escalating every situation they encountered. Including driving civilians off roads, raiding houses, zip tying innocent people, arresting innocent people and more.

Did it work in the long run? Of course not, but it kept units safe in the short term.