What The Iraq War Can Teach Us About Better Policing

Pvt. Anthony Salazar, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division pulls security during a patrol in the Furat area of Baghdad, Iraq on May 8, 2007

Sgt. 1st Class Bronco Suzuki / Defense Imagery Management Operations Center

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Pvt. Anthony Salazar, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division pulls security during a patrol in the Furat area of Baghdad, Iraq on May 8, 2007

One lesson: if you treat a neighborhood like a battlespace, you’re well on the way to losing the war.

When armed contractors from Blackwater Security Consulting encountered an angry crowd at Baghdad’s Nisour Square, they wound up killing 17 people and injuring another 20. In part, they were the wrong team with the wrong training in the wrong place.

“These guys were part of a set of teams that took a heavy-handed…approach. They got into hundreds of firefights in that period, doing that kind of work,” said David Kilcullen, who served as chief strategist in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department in Iraq and as Gen. David Petraeus’ chief counterinsurgency advisor during the 2007-08 troop surge. 

Kilcullen noted that another private security firm, Aegis Defence Services from the United Kingdom, “did hundreds of missions without getting into a single firefight. They had a completely different approach to working by, with, and through the population.” 

The anecdote has at least one lesson relevant to the current crisis in police community relations in the United States: imported security forces who use heavy-handed tactics on local populations don’t quell civil discord; they make it worse. 

That lesson has gone unlearned, so far, by President Donald Trump. In a call with governors on Monday, Trump urged them to “dominate” their streets with police and National Guard units. 

“Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled,” he added in a Rose Garden address on Monday afternoon, as police and Guardsmen used chemical spray and rubber bullets to clear a peaceable crowd across the street from the White House. The president has also threatened to use active military forces against U.S. citizens. All this ignores, among other things, key lessons from twenty years of counterinsurgency in the Middle East.

Kilcullen, whose books on military strategy and counterinsurgency include this year’s The Dragons and Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the Westsays that in riots, as in insurgency, only a minority of participants are intent on unprovoked violence — perhaps less than five percent. “The vast majority of people we wound up fighting” in Iraq, he said, “we were fighting because we were in their face.” 

Kilcullen acknowledges that heavy forces and equipment can certainly have a usefully intimidating effect. “It’s sometimes great to turn up with tanks,” he said. But shock-and-awe only works at the very outset of a campaign. “Once you are in an insurgency, you’re past that point.” Tanks, heavily-armored security forces and military helicopters scare armies but embolden insurgents. Excessive use of tactical equipment to intimidate a civilian population is “a sure way” to turn a bad situation “into something dramatically bigger and dramatically worse,” he says. 

Patrick Skinner, who has seen his share of insurgent activity, agreed. Skinner served as a CIA analyst in counterterrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of U.S. military operations there. Later, he became the director of special projects for the Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consultancy. In 2017, he left all that behind to become America’s most overqualified beat cop in Savannah, Georgia, where he’s now a detective. (He spoke to us in a private capacity, not as a representative of his department.)

He says that in cities where communities and police seem to be at war, leaders are making the same mistakes the United States made in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“In a best case, I was a well-armed tourist/invader…We can’t be tourists as police. We have to live here. It doesn’t work the other way.”

The United States has been grappling for years with how to strengthen bonds between communities and police. One strong effort was the 2014 National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice.

Six cities agreed to participate in the initiative, which trained officers to recognize implicit racial biases and hosted listening sessions with community members to understand historical grievances. The cities were Birmingham, Alabama; Fort Worth, Texas; Gary, Indiana; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Stockton, California; and Minneapolis. So what happened in Minnesota? 

“While Minneapolis made notable policy changes during the project, the police killings of Jamar Clark [in 2015] and Justine Damond [last year] very likely challenged this progress,” said Daniel Lawrence, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute. “It’s not all too surprising to see patrol officers sitting through training with crossed arms and indifferent eyes. We cannot improve policing until those officers embrace the efforts and teachings of police executives and researchers who have identified better, more humanizing, approaches.”

The big problem, says Lawrence, is that many communities see the police the same way many people in Afghanistan and Iraq saw the U.S. military: as an occupying, and thus illegitimate,force. “Views of legitimacy have been shown to increase individuals’ willingness to cooperate with officers and obey the law; but when officers repeatedly behave with disrespect, dehumanize those they interact with, or with racist intentions, those views are going to be seriously challenged.”

So how do you go from being an occupying force to a legitimate force? Skinner and Kilcullen point to two essential steps. First, cities should push policies to help departments recruit from local communities. Skinner said policing is too often seen as “something you do to people…It’s not something you do with your neighbors…A lot of people don’t want to be anywhere near the people they police.” 

Said Kilcullen, “It’s always better to have policing drawn from the community.” Aegis Defence Services again provides a key model. They would rely heavily on neighborhood recruits to engage with locals and take the lead while the foreign security workers would hang back with the heavy equipment. 

Skinner pointed out that actually living within a neighborhood drastically changes the way he, as a policeman, interacts with the people he’s policing. It makes it much harder to engage in what he called “robotic” police behaviors that lead to problems, like detaining people who don’t need to be detained in order to run a warrant search, or pulling out the taser when someone gets indignant about being stopped. It’s simply hard to do that to someone you might wind up seeing again at the grocery store or the post office. In earlier decades, it was common for cops to live in their communities, but changing home prices and urban and suburban sprawl forced police further and further away from the neighborhoods where they worked.  Policing changed from being a community job to just a vocation. Census data suggests that in 2014, 60 percent of the police forces of the of the 75 largest U.S. cities didn’t even live within the city limits, much less in the neighborhoods where they patrolled.

The second key step both Skinner and Kilcullen recommend: restricting the amount of military equipment that can go to police departments. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, is leading just such a legislative effort. “Militarizing the police is part of the problem here,” said Kilcullen. Remove some of the fancy tactical gear and “You’re going to get different policing behaviors,” he said. 

In other words, if you’re dominating the battlespace of America’s cities, you’re probably losing the war.

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