Tag Archives: law enforcement

What we have here…is a failure to communicate

I’ve become skeptical of a lot of Malcolm Gladwell’s stuff but this is a superb article about how easily the cognitive bias of ‘mirror imaging’ can have tragic consequences.

The siege of the Branch Davidian complex in 1993 was, according to Gladwell, doomed from the start because the F.B.I. and the Branch Davidians were simply occupying different realities.  The F.B.I. saw the incident as one led by a dangerous person (David Koresh) who was manipulating people through a veneer of religion.  In this construct, religion was just the tool Koresh needed wield power over his followers and to him is was purely utilitarian.  If espousing a political ideology or a different religion or belief in little green men would have gotten him to the same place he would be equally likely to adopt those beliefs in order to gain and keep his followers.

The Davidians, however, were true believers.  To them, they saw the physical proof of biblical prophecy all around them.  Talk of working things out, good plea deals or traditional hostage negotiation tactics just sounded like so much gibberish to them.  Didn’t the F.B.I. get that this wasn’t about some firearms charge?  This was about god.

Both parties were trying (and failing) to put themselves into the shoes of the other to understand them.  The F.B.I. operated from the perspective of ‘We’ve negotiated with criminals before….this guy is a criminal…therefore he’ll respond in a predictable way.’  The Davidians approached this from a religious point of view…’Anyone should be able to understand our position if they only understand scripture properly.’  Both of those assumptions were deeply flawed and in cases like this the resolution is inevitable.  The group with the better weapons will ‘win’.

But it didn’t necessarily need to end like this.  There were people who could do the ‘Davidian to F.B.I.’ translation.  That requires, however, at least one side to acknowledge that there might be another reality to translate from.  The F.B.I wasn’t willing to engage in that sort of thinking.  It’s easy to fault them for that but it’s not that easy.  Criminals conduct deception operations of greater or lesser sophistication all the time.  Law enforcement can’t indulge all of these attempts.  Still, it does appear that they lacked the ability to ever consider it.

Can Stop and Frisk be part of a ‘civilianzied’ COIN strategy

The Atlantic has a article in their latest issue that talks about the policy of ‘stop and frisk‘.  It’s a tough issue to handle because on the one hand it pretty clearly subjects minorities (mostly young, minority men) to scrutiny by law enforcement, often on pretty shaky grounds.  It does so much, in fact, that a judge recently declared the NYPD’s program unconstitutional.

On the other hand, there appears to be evidence (although, by no means universally accepted) that the rise of ‘stop and frisk’ coincided (and perhaps was the reason behind) the dramatic decrease of crime we’ve seen over the past couple of decades (contrary to what your local Eyewitness news team might lead you to believe, crime is and has been going down for years).

I highly recommend the article.  As I was reading it I was struck by it’s applicability to COIN.  A lot of the objections to ‘stop and frisk’ revolve around the idea of arbitrary use of force and coercion by law enforcement.  This, in turn, fuels an undermining of the legitimacy of state institutions.  Really, a fundamental problem in counterinsurgency situations.  What we know from COIN operations is that the answer is rarely increased coercion and/or decreased transparency.

Supporters of the program tend to talk about efficacy.  Usually some form of the ‘you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs’ justification.  This argument tends to be directed at the people who a) vote and b) almost never find themselves being stopped and frisked.  Therefore, the discussion can be kept on a theoretical level (‘If it means I don’t get robbed, I won’t mind answering a few questions to the police’) without really addressing the real issue.

Some of this controversy reflects real and deep understandings of the role of government and race in our society.  But…there is a real opportunity here.  The article points out something that I’ve heard anecdotally for some law enforcement officers over time.  In the very same neighborhoods where coercion and heavy handed law enforcement actions occur and often cause tension, there’s a realization that something like ‘stop and frisk’ might actually be necessary for order and stability.  From the article:

In Shabazz’s Dream Lounge, I asked the three teenagers about how they thought stop-and-frisk might be improved.

I posed a more general question. You’re the police director: What would you do about stop-and-frisk?

“It’s not cool,” Kiairus said. “I don’t think they should do it at all.”

“I think the whole stop-and-frisk thing is kind of bad and kind of good,” Roman said.

Extending the hypothetical, I asked them what they would tell me if I were a rookie cop. Smiling minimally, painfully, Roman said, “I’d tell you to look for black people. We’re the reason this happens. Think about it. The main people who are locked up, wind up dead, or are doing nothing with their life—it’s black people. It’s not just a stereotype. We’re committing most of the crimes. We do dumb things, rob stores, kill our own friends.”

So, what if we took something like ‘stop and frisk’ but made it more population-centric?  Is that even possible? The article hints at it but what might it look like? More community outreach?  Conducting stops in a less antagonistic way?

I don’t know if it’s a good analog but I think back to my time in Afghanistan.  There certainly were times when people were ‘wrapped up’ but those were clearly identified individuals, the equivalent of having an outstanding warrant on someone 1.  In the regular course of business (patrolling, visiting elders, humanitarian assistance or presence patrol missions) we wouldn’t roust people like that.  It seemed a pretty clear way to guarantee the loss of the population’s support.

And yet here in the U.S., we seem to dismiss similar considerations out of hand.  To entertain them is to somehow be seen as being ‘soft’ on crime.  Maybe, if I may continue the COIN analogy a bit more, something like ‘stop and frisk’ is a on the more ‘kenetic’ part of the spectrum of available tools for a population-centric operation.  Perhaps it’s reserved for particularly lawless, violent areas and its implementation would require some pre-identified metrics to determine when the program would cease.  That’s probably a bit too cut and dried but some sort of mechanism to make sure an policy which could easy be seen (and actually morph into) a special ‘tax on minorities’ seems essential.

And, of course, the information operation accompanying this would be equally important.  We’re not very good at all at doing information operations in the law enforcement/homeland security realm.  We still rely overwhelmingly on 20th century ideas of communication.  If you don’t watch the local news, get the local paper or (maybe) attend the town meeting you simply aren’t going to know the official word about what’s going on in your neighborhood.  Some have moved to more alternate forms of media but we’ve yet to embrace that widely or move much beyond just posting the old press release on a little used website or twitter account.

But, of course, I’m looking at this from the position of a privileged, middle class white guy.  Talking about hypotheticals is one thing.  This article describes some of the concerns that would need to be addressed.



  1. Granted that’s not a perfect analogy and certainly there were times when someone was mistaken or incorrectly picked up but I think it works well enough for this point.

Kvick Tänkare

I was never a devout Christian but when I was, as they say, ‘in the fold’ I always found the Book of Job weird.  How this story doesn’t undermine everything we’re told about god today is beyond me.  One can see how Nietzsche called it a ‘slave-religion’ if you cherry pick parts like this.  Joan Acocella from the New Yorker recounts the efforts scholars throughout the ages have attempted to reconcile that book with their understanding of their religions.

Does human evolution owe a debt to sabercats?  Amazing article about the diversity and impact of these creatures.

It’s been 500 years since Machiavelli wrote The Prince and to mark the anniversary, there have been a spate of articles about his impact.  Most have been derivative and phoned in but some have been interesting.  I found this article from The Diplomat to be in that category, particularly if you apply it to the intelligence community.

Now think about big institutions, bodies made up of — and led by — individuals prone to linear thinking. Institutions like governments, armed services, and companies tend to transcribe dramatic events — great victories or traumatic defeats — into bureaucratic routine. Structuring policies, doctrines, and career incentives on the assumption that past triumphs can be rerun or setbacks avoided strips flexibility out of decisions and actions.

Written with a slate and, I suspect, maybe some liberties with some details but both entertaining and disturbing in turn.  Vice’s ‘Year in Bad Cops‘ wrap up (be warned, there’s NSFW content on this site).  I am very concerned how our culture deifies authority figures who share a monopoly on the use of violence whether its law enforcement of the military.  They aren’t all brave, honorable, selfless, etc.  Some are.  And some are despicable, sadistic and parasitic.  Fetishizing them with a broad brush encourages abuse and exploitation.  They should be held to a higher standard than everyone else, not given a pass for their transgressions by saying ‘Well, they’ve got a tough job.’

This article feels about six years too late but I’m a sucker for ‘Lessons from the ancients’ stories.  What can Tacitus’ Agricola teach us about successful counterinsurgency campaigns?  Hmm…sounds remarkably like FM 3-24.

COIN and law enforcement

You may remember (although if you do, you spend entirely too much time scrutinizing this blog) that over the past few years I’ve written a number of posts about the applicability of counterinsurgency doctrine (at least a ‘civilianized’ version of it) could be quite useful in domestic law enforcement settings.  Certainly, things like ‘community oriented policing’ or ‘intelligence led policing’ touch on some of the same themes of COIN but don’t embrace it fully.

So, it was with both surprise and appreciation that I saw this recent 60 Minutes story about Springfield, Massachusetts and the attempt by one law enforcement officer to implement COIN in a neighborhood suffering from endemic gang and drug crime.

Now, I’m not totally thrilled with the image of the SWAT team all kitted out like they’re on patrol in Helmand (after all, why do they need desert camouflage? Can’t they have blue tactical uniforms that are less evocative of a military operation?) but other than that, this looks pretty good.  A focus on intelligence collection, trust building and reestablishing rule of law and legitimacy in institutions ahead of the old game of arrests and seizures.

For more, I’d recommend checking out this post I did from way back in 2009 (!).

On circular reporting…

Just two observations about the recent shooting in Connecticut.  The first is kind of a policy thing and the second is how this event relates to intelligence analysis:

I honestly can’t figure out if people are honestly surprised and horrified by these events.  After all, it’s not like mass shootings are a rare occurrence in the U.S.  Consider the following:

  • We have absolutely NO way to track the vast majority of firearm ownership changes in this country.  We can figure out who purchased one from a dealer but at that point they enter a big black hole, never to be seen again.  And we’ve got a LOT of guns:

  • While the mentally ill aren’t that much more violent than the general public (does that make you feel better?) our mental health system and culture towards it is so atrocious that there are few opportunities to intervene in many instances.  Basically, we hope the worst of them will get strung out on illegal drugs and self-medicate themselves to death, allowing us to ignore the problem.

Now, in intelligence analysis threat is defined as the intersection of capability and intent (more from me about this here).  Yet again, however, we’re about to forget that equation. If you want to reduce the threat you either have to reduce the capabilities of those you’re worried about (and here we’re talking about their ability to access firearms, ammunition and/or their targets) or reduce their intent.

We don’t seem to be able to even talk about limiting gun ownership in any way (even requiring all owners have firearms training will be portrayed as a totalitarian blow against freedom) so, despite the post shooting gnashing of teeth from those on the left, I think that’s going to go precisely nowhere 1.

And let’s be honest, does anyone see increased funding for mental health happening?  The right will say it’s yet another example of creeping socialism and the left is going to stamp it’s feet about guns all day. 2

So, events like last Friday are tragic but they shouldn’t be shocking or tragic.  Someone once said that Americans get the government they deserve (or something like that).  Well, we also get the crime that we deserve.  If you want unlimited gun ownership and consider mental health an issue of ‘personal responsibility’ then you’re going to get events like this.  If you want, you can hire more cops, give them bigger guns and more power to peep into your lives but do you really want to live in an armed camp for the rest of your lives?


Ok, so onto implications for intelligence analysis.

Since our law enforcement/homeland security community is essentially a competitive beast, what you will see (or would see if you could peep behind the curtain) is a mass of products flooding the system about this event.  Almost all of them will be meaningless drivel.  Cut and paste summaries from open source news outlets with some boilerplate language lifted from DHS’s ‘How to respond to an active shooter’ booklet.  These products are going to ping around the system like pinballs, filling up inboxes and (for the most part) going unread.

Why will so many of these repetitive products be made?  Because every agency needs to appear to be doing something.  To paraphrase Sir Humphrey:

[They] must be allowed to panic. They need activity. It is their substitute for achievement.

That way, when budget time rolls around they can proudly point to product X and say ‘We disseminated a product to all the schools within 4 hours of news of the shooting.’  What you won’t hear is anything concrete and measurable about the utility of said product.  That’s because usually there is very little.

Of additional concern is the use of resources in cases like this.  Does anyone think that North Carolina’s and South Carolina’s (purely a hypothetical example) take on this event will be (or should be) substantively different?  Rather than each devoting anlayst(s) to craft a product might it be worth while to produce one that applies to both.  Perhaps, in cases like this, even a national level product?

But that doesn’t happen.  So, beginning on Friday you had agencies all over the country and at all levels crafting products that were essentially the same thing.  Those were resources that could have been devoted elsewhere, perhaps to more credible, local purposes.  Given the sketchy details in the first few hours and the unremarkable aspects of this particular case a fairly generic piece that applies broadly would be fine here.

The other problem with all these reports is their impact on perception of a problem.  Even though these reports will all contain virtually the same information, the number number of these reports (I suspect) has some subconscious impact on perceptions of what threats are most likely and most dangerous.

For example, there have been a number of high profile mass shootings since the summer.  The open source media has reported on them quite heavily and the public safety community has an irritating trend of only following news items that appear on CNN or Fox.  So, in the wake of each shooting has been a flood of official products regurgitating the same information.

The problem is that few, if any, are looking at whether this is something substantially different, a spike in incidents that statistically happens occasionally or just the result of increased media reporting.  And since no one asks that question, people impose their own, evidence free, interpretations on these events.

And that, in turn, can lead us back down to focusing on things we shouldn’t.


  1. alternately, some sort of law will pass that will make people feel good but not actually impact the threat equation. For example, some sort of assault weapons ban that won’t do anything to curb the vast secondary market or address the fact that handguns are the big problem.
  2. Btw, this isn’t really the place but, in my humble opinion, this could be solved by reading the 2nd amendment as it was written and allowing unfettered ownership of arms to be contingent on membership in a ‘well regulated militia’.  But, nobody gives a crap what I think so nertz to me.


Radley Balko has been reporting on incidents of ‘puppycide’ (where law enforcement officer shoot dogs on various flimsy reasons).  He’s got an article up on HuffPo about it.

When police officers shoot dogs, departments usually deem the shooting justified if the officer felt threatened by the animal.

Look, I get it.  Law enforcement can be a dangerous job.  But I was in a similar situation.  I spent 20 years in the military including a tour in Afghanistan.  It was dangerous.  Ok…If I didn’t know that when I first signed up I got the hint after the first few years.  If working in that sort of environment wasn’t for me, I could go look for another gig.  No harm, no foul.

Still, there’s a fetish in the law enforcement community about ‘officer safety’ that’s out of whack.  There is a reasonable, easy solution to this issue.  Training.

Groups like the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals offer free training to police departments, but both organizations said few departments take them up on the offer. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle are among departments that don’t provide regular training to officers on how to respond to dogs.

The easiest way to tell if a law enforcement agency doesn’t care about an issue is if they refuse free training dealing with it.

The other problem is the lack of accountability.  Police unions will excuse virtually any behavior.  Police departments usually conduct their own internal investigations.  Neither of those practices do much to build trust or credibility.

And guess, what? It’s actually a proven concept!

A Postal Service spokesman said in a 2009 interview that serious dog attacks on mail carriers are extremely rare. That’s likely because postal workers are annually shown a two-hour video and given further training on “how to distract dogs with toys, subdue them with voice commands, or, at worst, incapacitate them with Mace.”

All that being said, I don’t want to paint too broad a brush here.  After all, it was the stellar work of my local law enforcement that directly led to the rescue of Shiloh a couple of years ago.  There’s a lot of good work being done…but it can (and needs to) be better.

In which I give the FBI a (tentative) thumbs up

I think Will Potter over at Green is the New Red has gone a bit overboard on his latest post.  He describes an encounter between an animal rights activist and the FBI.  The FBI show up and…no threats, no pepper spray, no allegations of terrorism.

They just ask if the activists get information about abuses to pass along the information.

Potter and the activist immediately jump to the idea of informants and talk COINTELPRO.

I’ve advocated for quite some time that law enforcement should conduct outreach to activists of all stripes in an effort to clarify what they are and aren’t interested in and how to avoid conflict.  How about efforts to build trust?  Sure, it’s going to take time and progress will only come through tiny, baby steps but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Now, I don’t know anything about the FBI effort (assuming the encounter is accurately recounted) but this response is not helpful at all.

So is this emphasis on “liaisons” a reflection of a kinder, gentler FBI?

Not likely.

If the response is an automatic “Get out of here!” you have NO chance of improving relations. They didn’t ask for lists of names or for the activist to hide the fact the conversation took place.  Why couldn’t she act (openly) as a conduit between the FBI and the activist community?

Prejudice and narrow-mindedness is not the exclusive domain of the authorities.

So, my question in light of this story is assuming you’re one of these activists and there is a law enforcement agency that is honestly attempting to conduct outreach in order to clarify what actions are legal/illegal and asking for assistance in identifying violent, criminal activity, how would that look different from what was described in this post?  What steps would you want/expect to see?

And let’s remember to be realistic.  It’s not in the power of law enforcement to unilaterally overturn federal law.  Any initiative is likely to face as much suspicion, resistance and criticism within the agency as it would with a group of animal rights activists.  So, assuming you actually want to improve things, what would you expect?

So, kudos for the FBI apparently trying to reach out to the activist community and nertz to the bunker mentality of the Animal Rights Coalition for refusing to speak to them and at least see if the agents acted in good faith.

NYPD gives big middle finger to good intelligence practice and civil liberties

The NYPD is a force unlike any other.  With 40,000 members it’s larger than the armed forces of many nations.  After 9/11, the NYPD began sending liaisons all over the world to work with foreign law enforcement agencies.

And, they began a program to track all the brown people in the world.  Stop and Frisk and the ‘Demographics Unit‘ are two examples of that but recently it was uncovered that the NYPD has also been spending time hanging out in Muslim Student Associations in a number of universities.

Undoubtedly tracking those dangerous Muzlims that are probably spending all their time making suicide bomb vests, right?They talked with local authorities about professors in Buffalo and even sent an undercover agent on a whitewater rafting trip, where he recorded students’ names and noted in police intelligence files how many times they prayed.

One autumn morning in Buffalo, N.Y., a college student named Adeela Khan logged into her email and found a message announcing an upcoming Islamic conference in Toronto.

Khan clicked “forward,” sent it to a group of fellow Muslims at the University at Buffalo, and promptly forgot about it.

But that simple act on Nov. 9, 2006, was enough to arouse the suspicion of an intelligence analyst at the New York Police Department, 300 miles away, who combed through her post and put her name in an official report. Marked “SECRET” in large red letters, the document went all the way to Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s office.

Supposedly all this nonsense ended in 2007 but they also said they never did this sort of surveillance when, in fact, they were doing it so who knows.

In any case, it reflects a deeply flawed sense of threat, prioritization and resource allocation.  This was, in short, a huge fishing operation.  A hope that if you flail around long enough eventually you’ll hit the pinata.

And the NYPD don’t seem to dispute that:

Asked about the monitoring, police spokesman Paul Browne provided a list of 12 people arrested or convicted on terrorism charges in the United States and abroad who had once been members of Muslim student associations…

So, because some people ‘arrested or convicted on terrorism charges’ (and we’ve seen how empty that category can be) were members of a student association we should go undercover at those places?  I suspect almost 100% of people arrested or convicted of terrorism charges ate food.  Let’s set up surveillance at all the T.G.I.Fridays in the country and we’ll catch ALL the terrorists!

In one report, an undercover officer describes accompanying 18 Muslim students from the City College of New York on a whitewater rafting trip in upstate New York on April 21, 2008. The officer noted the names of attendees who were officers of the Muslim Student Association.

“In addition to the regularly scheduled events (Rafting), the group prayed at least four times a day, and much of the conversation was spent discussing Islam and was religious in nature,” the report says.

You can see one such report here. (nypd-msa-report)

There are some interesting things to note about it.

First, check out the classification markings:  ‘NYPD Secret’.  What the fuck is that? Is that like ‘Super duper pinkie swear secret’?  The federal government has the authority to classify documents, not municipalities (even the Big Apple).  Now, you might be inclined to let every agency have their own delusions of grandeur but there is a bigger issue here.

If you look on page 2 of the document you’ll see they dropped the ‘NYPD’ and just labeled the document ‘Secret’.  Well, now you’ve got all sorts of potential for madcap hijinks.  Might people confuse this with a real secret document and be compelled to treat it with the same restrictions and considerations?  Or, more worrying, does this mean that real secret documents might get mixed up with these bogus ones, thereby increasing the chance of an unauthorized disclosure.

Look, if NYPD wants to play ‘Secret Squirrel’ that’s all well and good but they should pick terms that don’t infringe on real work.

Other than that, take a moment and look at the report.  I can’t comment on it’s content or analysis because it’s totally devoid of anything that could be considered relevant to homeland security, terrorism or crime.

Who thought this was a good idea?

I’m not sure what I should be more frustrated about with this document; the fact that it’s a complete waste of time or the fact that someone got paid to gather these *ahem* facts and report them.


Cop or soldier?

Balko put together a very interesting (and disturbing) quiz of photographs and let’s you see if you can guess which are pictures of soldiers and which are pictures of cops.

Check it out.

Since I have experience in both fields I tried to take the quiz as quickly as possible to minimize the amount I could ‘game’ the system.  It still happened (there aren’t many mud walls like you see in Afghanistan here in the states and one or two of the photos got national attention and were recognizable) but I was only able to score 16 out of 21 correct.  That’s shocking given my time with the military and I’d have to assume that for citizens without that familiarity and forced to make a quick determination the distinctions would be almost impossible to make.

Forget about getting any real discussion about the pros and cons of creating police forces with military grade equipment in the U.S.  News that law enforcement deaths are on the increase will be seen as a reason to escalate (we need bigger guns! drones! tanks!) rather than reevaluate current methodologies.

The best comment on all of this was over at BoingBoing:

When I was a kid, the tough one was telling cops and postmen apart.


To serve and protect?

I’ll start off by saying that I know, respect and personally like a great many law enforcement officers out there.  They are regular people trying to do a difficult job.  Most are truly dedicated to doing good and making their community’s safer.

There are, however, institutional motivators that should cause everyone some concern when thinking about police-citizen relations.  The militarization of police has been in the news recently and is one (big cause) as is the various ‘wars’ we’ve declared (drugs, underage drinking, whatever).  On occasions where I instruct to an audience that has law enforcement members in it I often say cops divide the world into two groups:  criminals and those who haven’t been arrested…yet.

So, I’d recommend reading two posts from apparently very different authors.

First is this post from ‘Police:  The Law Enforcement Magazine‘.  The author, a retired police officer and associate editor of the magazine describes a community which punishes officers that prizes conformity above all else and ruthlessly squashes dissent and alternate views.

Throughout [the police academy and police career], we were taught by word and example to adhere to the party line and only exhibit fearlessness of initiative in matters of life or death. Dissent may be fine, but only in the abstract for the Department is an organism that will expel foreign bodies to preserve its homeostasis. Those who deviated from script found themselves expelled from the academy, 86’ed out of custody, banned from patrol, barred from promotion, and persona non grata in the Land of Good Standing.

Next is this post (and the comments section) from Gin and Tacos.

I’m a law abiding 33 year old white male with a Ph.D. and an aspiring middle class lifestyle…and I’ve never dealt with a cop who wasn’t an asshole toward me. Not once. If that’s how they treat someone who practically shits white male privilege, I feel safe assuming that they’re not being much friendlier or more helpful to anyone else. The police officer is supposed to be someone we can trust implicitly, and instead the policies of the past three decades have transformed the citizen-police relationship to one of deep, mutual suspicion. They see us as drug holding, law breaking felons-in-waiting, and we see them as an opponent to be avoided at all costs.

Now, I know many will be inclined to write this off as bleeding heart, commie whining but really read this and the 53 (so far) comments.

I can’t shake the feeling that these two things are linked.

I often talk about the similarities I see between a counterinsurgency campaign and some civilian crime environments.  If you were a commander of a district in Afghanistan and the local population bombarded you with comments like this about the local security forces, how confident would you be that you were winning ‘hearts and minds’?

And certainly images like this aren’t going to do much for the next generation or two and the trust and credibility they give the police.

Or the fact that nearly one-third of all people are arrested by the time they’re 23.

There’s something very, very wrong with that statistic.