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An Alternative Way to Secure Iraq
Lessons from Community Policing


Thursday, Nov. 06, 2003

At the same time that crime in the United States is at a record low, we find ourselves struggling in what appears to be an increasingly lawless country.

More Americans have died since President Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq, than had died in combat to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Attacks on coalition forces are increasing. In July, there were approximately a dozen a day; a recent week saw an average of 33 a day.

Worse, if the recent bombings of the Rashid hotel and downing of a U.S. helicopter are any indication, the attacks are becoming deadlier. Iraqi civilians are dying, too. And the perpetrators of the attacks, it seems, are rarely caught.

What is the solution? U.N. troops would alleviate the American burden, but they might not solve the problem: U.N. peacekeepers would only enter into the same dangerous situation to which U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians are currently exposed. Some Iraqis might be happier with a multilateral presence, but some would doubtless feel that any occupation is untenable, and continue to attack.

In the end, the situation in Iraq is not only a military issue, but also a policing problem. Accordingly, we should be looking at the lessons we have learned from our contemporary domestic law enforcement experiences.

Of course, no one would argue that the problems in Iraq are identical to those in American cities. But there are analogies, and our strategy in Iraq has at least begun to reflect a place for law enforcement perspectives rather than purely militaristic ones. Paul Bremer's retention of Bernard Kerik, a former chief of the New York Police Department, is a good start. But we have only touched the edges of the benefits that could be achieved by applying modern American law enforcement approaches in Iraq.

The Advantages of Solving Problems at a Local Level

When it comes to achieving day-to-day security in American neighborhoods, the era of police attempting to patrol, protect, and infiltrate hostile communities are long gone. In the 1990's, community policing emerged as an alternative to this quasi-military approach.

Community policing is widely credited for the record-breaking lows in the national crime rate. It is distinguished by a handful of characteristics, all of which require both the cooperation and the empowerment of the policed citizenry.

As is the case in America, crime problems in Iraq vary at the local level. The attacks on coalition forces in Iraq have largely been concentrated in Central Iraq, between Baghdad and Mosul. In contrast, peacekeeping challenges in other areas of the country are confined to problems like looting and vandalism.

In American cities, police facing geographically diverse problems have reaped the rewards of enhanced citizen-police partnerships. Citizens are often in a better position than police to know the unique problems in and dynamics of their own geographic area. Accordingly, they are often in the best position both to identify these problems and to suggest methods of preventing them in the future.

When that has been our experience here, why is it so difficult to imagine that Iraqis might be in a better position than coalition forces to respond to their own geographically distinct burdens?

Last week, President Bush called on the Pentagon to move thousands of Iraqis onto the front lines as militiamen in the areas hardest hit by attacks. But Bremer still estimates that training these soldiers and officers will take until September.

The empowerment of Iraqis is not happening quickly enough, and we are paying the price with lost lives, decreasing Iraqi support, and signs of increased coordination among anti-American elements.

Our Current Vision of Iraqi Cooperation, and Why It Is Flawed

Even if we shift more security responsibilities to Iraqis, we are still failing to generate the meaningful, sustainable citizen-police partnerships that have been necessary at home for the most successful forms of policing. There has been talk of winning hearts and minds. But unfortunately, the administration appears to value Iraqis only as the eyes and ears of coalition forces.

That's a mistake. Domestically, police departments have learned through experience that citizens will act as eyes and ears only if they are also allowed to be brains and mouths.

Drawing on this experience, we should be searching for ways to utilize the services of willing Iraqi civilians. We should be asking them to identify the hurdles to a safe, secure Iraq, and to aid in developing strategies to solve those problems.

The advantage is not just that we can profit from Iraqis' knowledge. It is also that we may be able to convince citizens to informally "police" their own communities. American cities have seen that citizens who take ownership in their communities are more likely to walk the streets, use their sidewalks, and challenge those in their community who need to be challenged.

Under the now famous "Broken Windows" theory of policing, we have accepted that fixing low-level problems like broken windows helps to create a powerful antidote to more serious crimes. It sends a message that there is an active police presence in the community, and inspires the citizenry to create, and informally enforce, community standards.

That means we should be policing not only the crucial area where the attacks have predominantly occurred, but also the areas where looting and vandalism affect Iraqis, their homes and businesses, and their everyday quality of life.

Community Policing Will Help to Legitimize Coalition Efforts

In American cities, giving community members a decision-making role in policing has been an essential component in the long process of alleviating historic tensions between police and citizens. Through community policing, American cities have learned that community support for and participation in policing programs help legitimate the programs themselves.

With respect to Iraq, there is much talk about whether a multilateral effort would help legitimate our actions there. But to a proud and highly nationalistic population, bringing in more outside help does not negate the fact that Iraq is being run by outsiders. When it comes to Iraq, we seem to have forgotten the lesson of community policing - there is no better legitimizer than participation by the governed themselves.

In the end, we claim that turning over responsibility and authority to the Iraqi people is our goal. It certainly ought to be. As a matter of justice, many have argued that Iraqis must self-govern as soon as possible. As a matter of effectiveness, and saving lives, we know from our experiences at home that community empowerment works.

Given the current status of Iraq, a solution that is both just and effective must be used. If we ignore it, it is at our peril.

Alafair Burke is an Associate Professor of Law at Hofstra Law School. She previously was a prosecutor in Portland, Oregon, where she worked to implement community policing programs.

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