Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law

How Debates About Police Reform Echo Arguments Over Counterinsurgency

Nate Wood
Monday, June 22, 2020, 8:01 AM

In both debates, the central question is one of scope: How much should the police and military be asked to do in creating and maintaining safety and stability, and how competent are they to do what is being asked of them?

Police officers in riot gear stand outside a building on a dark street. (Flickr/Roscoe Myrick,; CC BY 2.0,

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There are striking similarities between the current debate over whether to defund the police and the debate that began roughly 15 years ago over how the U.S. military should approach the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both debates, the central question is one of scope: How much should the police and military be asked to do in creating and maintaining safety and stability, and how competent are they to do what is being asked of them?

In response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, calls to defund the police have gained momentum. While some advocates desire the literal abolition of police departments, most want something less ambitious: to shift funding and functions away from police departments to other government entities that may be better suited to provide the services in question, such as dispute resolution, mental health crisis response and routine calls for assistance. Most defunding advocates argue that police forces are incapable of, or at least comparatively ineffective at, doing anything other than the core function of policing—that is, using coercive force to deal with (relatively rare) instances of serious crime and violence. It’s a debate about institutional competence and efficiency.

To many in the field of national security, this discussion will sound familiar. It echoes a similar, still-simmering debate about the ability of the U.S. military to perform nontraditional functions in a counterinsurgency (COIN). That conversation began in the mid-aughts with the development and implementation of the military’s new COIN approach, a period chronicled in Fred Kaplan’s 2013 book, “The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.”

Debates about the relative competence of institutions are nothing new. But the similarities between the debates over police reform and COIN are particularly striking because of the many similarities between COIN and community policing, which I explored in this 2015 research paper for Lawfare. Community policing has grown to become the prevailing approach to law enforcementat least in nameover the course of several decades. The Department of Justice’s 2015 “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department,” for example, called on the department to implement “true community policing.” Likewise, community policing was one of the six pillars of the “Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing,” also from 2015. Community policing has become the consensus approach to policing, although it has had its critics, including among police, and has been implemented inconsistently.

Like COIN, community policing emphasizes the importance of the relationship between the community (or “the population,” in COIN-speak) and the forces charged with protecting it. Both community policing and COIN are premised on the idea that cops and soldiers are capable of doing it all.

As I wrote in 2015, community policing calls for police officers “to serve their communities in a variety of non-traditional ways, to include resolving neighborhood disputes before they turned criminal, working with residents to improve conditions, providing emergency social services, and facilitating social service referrals.” COIN calls for a similarly nontraditional approach and, as Kaplan described in his book, a draft of Gen. David Petraeus’s COIN manual set a similarly high bar for soldiers and Marines—they had to “possess a daunting set of traits, including ‘a clear, nuanced, and empathetic appreciation of the essential nature and nuances of the conflict’ … as well as a rudimentary knowledge of the host country’s culture, behavioral norms, and leadership structure.” One of the fathers of the U.S. military’s COIN approach, David Kilcullen, described COIN as “armed social work.” In practical terms, that meant “a young company commander ha[d] to play combat soldier, cop and child welfare worker, all in the span of one long morning.” Critics of COIN asked whether it was possible to recruit and train soldiers and Marines capable of achieving such a high standard. To some, it was a fool’s errand from the get-go. Critics of community policing have voiced similar concerns.

In 2016, after Ferguson but before Minneapolis, then-Dallas Police Chief David Brown said, “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.” Similar observations have been made about the broad scope of the military’s missions and the wide variety of purposes to which the military has been put. As Rosa Brooks put it in her 2016 book, “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon,” “It’s a vicious circle: as civilian capacity has declined, the military has stepped into the breach …[,] but the more the military’s role expands, the more civilian agencies such as the State Department and USAID find themselves sidelined.” In 2013, future Secretary of Defense James Mattis, then the commander of U.S. Central Command, sounded the same note: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”

Though they make for strange bedfellows, advocates of defunding are echoing the basic argument made by Mattis. In their telling, police forces are not well suited to do many of the things they are asked to do, and some of the money now spent on police would be better spent elsewhere. Like Brooks, they also claim that spending too much on police has led to the atrophying of other vital institutions, further compounding the problem. The similarity between the arguments over COIN and police reform adds an interesting wrinkle to the term “police militarization.” Usually the term is used disapprovingly to describe the ways in which police have sometimes come to resemble and act like soldiers. But maybe it should be stretched to also characterize how police forces, like the military, have become the one-size-fits-all solution to problems that are often linked to security only indirectly.

Perhaps the 15-year-old debate over the military’s competence and purpose in COIN can serve as a useful reference point for the relatively new debate over the competence and purpose of the police. According to Brooks, “At best, the military has a mixed track record when it comes to performing such traditionally civilian functions as providing humanitarian assistance, governance support, and development aid.” That’s true of police as well, as Chief Brown observed. Brooks again:

But though part of the problem is surely military ineptitude—clueless young officers managing tasks for which they have little instinct and less training—it’s not the military that sets national security policy and it’s not the military that sets the nation’s budgetary priorities. Without strong political leadership, sensible strategic goals, and partnerships with capable, well-funded, and adaptable civilian agencies[,] … military initiatives can only do so much.

Substitute “police” for “military” in that passage and it could have been ripped straight from today’s debate.

Despite Mattis’s warning about having to buy more bullets, there is little indication that the role of the military will be curtailed anytime soon. Indeed, by the end of her book, Brooks has become reconciled to that reality. Rather than imagining a slimmed-down military and expanded civilian sector, Brooks asks readers to instead imagine a military that looks “a whole lot more like a civilian agency itself[,] … a single large but agile organization” in which traditional military and civilian skills were integrated under one roof. Brooks argues that, given “political and fiscal realities,” it would be more realistic to civilian-ize the military than to try and rebuild the civilian sector at the military’s expense.

Until George Floyd was killed on May 25, most observers would have reached the same conclusion about reforming the role and purpose of the police.

Nate Wood is a reserve major in the U.S. Marine Corps and an attorney for the Department of Justice. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense or the Department of Justice.

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