COIN in the cities

I’ve been of the opinion (as you surely know) that the principles of COIN doctrine can have real utility in areas of our country (including, but not exclusively, depressed urban areas) where the government is no longer able to exercise its basic functions of rule of law, social services, infrastructure maintenance, etc.  When the state does not fulfill its duty and creates a vacuum of authority and services, the spirit of Mr. Hobbes rises from the dead and a leviathan emerges, to assert some sort of order on the community.  That order may be brutal and slipshod but (as wonderfully described in Venkatesh’s book) is preferable by almost everyone to anarchy.  Generally, the state’s response has been to respond to the problems caused by this situation by focusing on those elements which organize the most and, therefore, appear most threatening to the state system.  As soon as a criminal organization is able to accrue enough power to exert its will geographically on a (semi) regular basis, law enforcement moves to crush it.  While that results in a tangible good (bringing to justice those who have preyed upon local inhabitants and broken laws) it creates a host of cascading consequences that are almost never dealt with (a return of anarchy, increased violence as previously supressed actors fight for control, etc.) until another network attracts the attention of the state.
The problem is crime and other undesirable manifestations of failed state control of areas have root causes which must be addressed if you want anything other than temporary improvement.  Hence, my desire to see a modified version of COIN applied to the lawless areas of our country.
So, it’s nice to see that at least one city out there is experimenting with the concept.  As reported in the Washington Post, Salinas, California had such a serious gang/crime problem that was clearly out of control of local authorities.  The mayor (perhaps given the budgetary problems in the state, they were told not to expect any assistance from Sacramento?) asked for help from the Naval Postgraduate Institute.  And what has the team from NPS discovered?
In Salinas, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the uniformed forces patrolling “are still viewed as an occupying force,” said Police Chief Louis Fetherolf.
Gangs and police compete in the aftermath of gang shootings — witnesses in a position to see everything share nothing with police.

The distrust rises partly from differences of culture and language: Many Hispanics in the city have roots in nations where police are often viewed as predators.

I think that last sentence is a bit disingenuous.  While it may be true, it misses the fact that there are lots of people who are born and raised in this country who view police (and most government representatives for that matter) as predatory and a threat (and I’m not talking about tea-baggers).  The way this is written threatens to undermine the whole idea that the problem is one of failing government and allows it to be supplemented with one that blames those dang immigrants.  The solution to that problem is much easier than all this ‘root cause’ stuff and we can just throw more armed guards on the border and our cities will naturally get better.

But Fetherolf, who took office this year, also blamed a tradition of police officers who “love the chase. They get into this business to kick ass and take names, by and large. We’re at odds with ourselves because of the people we hire.”

Now, that’s a very interesting quote and it’d be interesting what the chief does to follow through with it.  Does this mean he’s going to implement new criteria to hire, train, and promote police officers.  Assuming that isn’t a throw away line it could indicate big changes.
Certain adjustments were required: “Commander’s Intent” became “Mayor’s Intent.”
I’d argue this is a HUGE development.  I’ve been involved with trying to get some agencies to adopt the idea of ‘intent’ in order to guide their collection and analytical process (success to date:  meh).  It’s really the first step of the Planning and Direction process, without which you really aren’t going to get very far in producing meaningful intelligence products.  The biggest problem is that very few are willing to explicitly identify their priorities either because:
  1. the don’t understand the various threats sufficiently to establish priorities
  2. fear of suffering political/professional repercussions for not establishing the ‘right’ priorities (and by ‘right’ I mean the ones that end up blowing up in their faces.  Nobody wants to have to explain why they were focusing on North Korea (or whatever) while 19 Islamists were busy flying airplanes into buildings.  Better to just not make any priorities and claim everything is a priority (ahem…I’m talking about you ‘All Crimes, All Hazards’).

So, if, in fact, they are actually establishing priorities for operations and intelligence that would be a big step in the right direction.

If you’re interested in more on this, I’d recommend this thread on Small Wars Journal, although it gets off topic after the first page.  Here’s another that looks interesting as well.  In the past I’ve been dubious of authors with a SWJ pedigree in the past when they start talking about gangs and insurgencies but I think I may need to be a bit more discriminating in the future.


6 responses to “COIN in the cities

  1. I’ll post what I posted at the Kotare blog:

    When we do that (supplement force with ‘soft power’) in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is COIN best practices. When we do it in the United States, it is “big guv’mint” intruding on people’s lives. Plus when local governments do it, you need to raise the money from taxes. When the Pentagon does it, you just borrow the money from China.

  2. Well, you’re right of course but that’s where we really need to break out of our old methods of thinking about these problems. So, for example, I’m not sure how many examples there are of us honestly trying to supplement ‘soft power’ with force.

    Operation Ceasefire ( was a tentative step in the right direction and showed some promising results but more is clearly needed.

    Given the plethora of lawless areas within our country we should be able to experiment with a number of various mixes of local/federal involvement and hard/soft power combinations and short/medium/long timeframes.

    There may be costs involved in any such approach but I’d argue 1) we spend billions a month to keep Iraq and Afghanistan from falling apart so how could we not consider parts of our own country worthy of such an effort and 2) I suspect little in the way of new funds would be required if only existing funds can be pried away from pet projects and current patronage uses and diverted to outcome based projects and programs.

  3. Rochester is trying to implement a 20-year ish project to rebuild neighborhoods with lots of vacant houses, there was a recent article about it:

    I would classify this as a long-term soft-power approach to the crime associated with vacants. We are also doing a ‘super-board up’ project where vacant houses, instead of getting boarded up with some 2 x 4s, have heavy-duty inch-think boards with giant nails so nobody can get in unless they have a buzz saw. Stuff like that is a soft-power approach, but it’s also something that’s easily cut from the budget. Consituents won’t call in complaining about a project like that like they would call in about school cuts. Which is also the problem with diverting money away from pet projects – those projects have powerful backers.

  4. Thanks for that link Adrian, I’ll check it out and comment more fully on it later.

  5. Pingback: Rattatattatat… « The World According to Me…

  6. What we have to worry about most is the short-sightedness of the law enforcer as a faxctor in the high crime and incarseration rate. There isn’t much cognitive ops going on when an animal chases prey. Cerebral computation come to play only when the prey seems either dangerous or unaccessible in a linear persuit. Then the mind gets geometric. A police officer face the problem of law enforcement long beyond the catch and even before he starts the catch. Alas for many it is a sort of predator catching prey and the long process of concequences that follows is not considered. Thus, for example, one might wonder if there is justification for this chase that will hold up in courtor if it is worth endagering the public with a chase. I always saw COIN as police work. Like Samurai who has to draw his sword in order to impose his will, police resort to violence is a high-flying sign of failure. Police presence has to, in the best of circumstances, remind a prospective perpetrator that he/she is part of a society and that as an outlaw he/she may no longer be. Thus, the cop as symbol is the critical role reminding that ostracization may not be worth the gain of crime. For that good result to occur, the policeman’s work starts long before the incident for the police most often is the community’s ambassador to each individual within it. “Kinetics” is a sign of failure and challenge of authority a sign of loss of prestige, like the samurai who had to draw his sword. The power of police is in the uniform from a distance and the badge from up close. A cop is a peace-keeping officer, thus he PREVENTS hopefully far more often than chasing down a perpetrator. In Vietnam, when our presence meant that a local VC operation was set aside, we realized that we had no way to go but up for in that case where nothing happened– either in the way of crime or guerrilla action– means that the writ of the government went way down to that spot where stood the guerrilla having to make a strategic decision to postpone his illigal act– in the non-kinetic form of a peace-keeper. In contrast, the itchy trigger finger of our military had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in that we did not deter but enticed through generating hate for the concequences of our fire power. The brainless trigger pulling of our forces, as opposed to the peace-keeping of our cops, makes for an insurgency that drained our forces and bankrupt our society. Key point is that COIN is the violence that did not happen because the presence of police made the violence un-necessary.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s