The Other Side of the COIN: Counterinsurgency and Community Policing

by Kristian Williams

The following discussion of U.S. domestic counterinsurgency is adapted and condensed with permission from “The Other Side of the COIN: Counterinsurgency and Community Policing” by Kristian Williams.  Williams is a member of Rose City Copwatch in Portland, Oregon, and the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America (Soft Skull, 2004; South End Press, 2007)The full paper appeared in the May 2011 issue of Interface, and a full list of bibliographic sources can be found there.
The unrest of the 1960s left the police in a difficult position.  The cops’ response to the social movements of the day — the civil rights and anti-war movements especially — had cost them dearly in terms of public credibility, elite support, and officer morale.  Frequent and overt recourse to violence, combined with covert surveillance, infiltration, and disruption (typified by the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations), had not only failed to squelch the popular movements, it had also diminished trust in law enforcement.

The police needed to re-invent themselves, and the first place they looked for models was the military. Military training, tactics, equipment, and weaponry, made their way into domestic police departments — as did veterans returning from Vietnam, and, more subtly, military approaches to organization, deployment, and command and control.  Police strategists specifically began studying counterinsurgency warfare.

“Counterinsurgency” (or “COIN” is military jargon) refers to a kind of military operation outside of conventional army-vs.-army war-fighting, and is sometimes called “low-intensity” or “asymmetrical” combat.  But counterinsurgency also describes a particular perspective on how such operations ought to be managed.  This style of warfare is characterized by an emphasis on intelligence, security and peace-keeping operations, population control, propaganda, and efforts to gain the trust of the people. Continue reading