Community Policing to Prevent Violent Extremism
By Dan Silk, Ph.D.
In August 2011, the White House released the important new document “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.” This document outlines a broad, outreach-based strategy for reducing the threat of violent extremism.1 Previous work, including the U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism and efforts by the U.S. Homeland Security Advisory Council’s Preventing Violent Extremism Working Group and the joint U.S. Department of Justice-U.S. Department of Homeland Security Building Communities of Trust Initiative, supports this document.2
The White House document recognizes outreach and community-government relationships as key to successfully protecting the United States from an al Qaeda-inspired threat. The president’s introduction to the strategy emphasizes its purpose as outlining “how the federal government will support and help empower American communities and their local partners in their grassroots efforts to prevent violent extremism,” which includes “strengthening cooperation with local law enforcement who work with these communities every day.”3 Supported by tactics that closely follow the philosophy of community policing, government-community partnerships represent a vital facet of countering violent extremism.
Law enforcement agencies in the United Kingdom recognize this feature of counterterrorism because it closely mirrors the Prevent portion of their national counterterrorism strategy. Representing an integral part of the overall mission to fight violent extremism, Prevent, in existence since 2007, is the aspect that uses government, police, and community resources to keep people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.4 It incorporates a community-centered approach that heavily emphasizes local action and, while not without controversy, spurs law enforcement in the United Kingdom to remain on the cutting edge of counterterrorism tactics. This strategy strives to harness the potential of community policing and is the source of many successful programs across the United Kingdom. In the past, agencies have used community policing to tackle other criminal challenges. Police in the United Kingdom have employed this philosophy for years to affect the danger posed by terrorism.
The core goal of the new U.S. strategy is “to prevent violent extremists and their supporters from inspiring, radicalizing, financing, or recruiting individuals or groups in the United States to commit acts of violence.”5 This initiative, at least in its core focus, closely emulates the goal of Prevent.
Dr. Silk, a former U.S. State Department special agent and multiple law enforcement officer, servers as the the communications coordinator of the University of Georgia Police Department in Athens and an instructor in the university's Criminal Justice Studies Program.
Because of their long history of dealing with terrorism, United Kingdom law enforcement agencies’ work with counterterrorism offers a valuable lesson for U.S. law enforcement personnel. British researchers have expended considerable effort reviewing the application of Prevent and similar strategies.6 Even though Prevent has been applied, debated, and modified for several years, the application of it does not necessarily reveal a perfect fit for the United States. Recent reviews of the tactic have identified needed improvements.7 However, the British criminal justice system and policing culture closely parallel and in some ways birthed the U.S. system. This provides an important opportunity for police in the United States to consider the British experience while moving forward with similar initiatives.
Through Prevent and other law enforcement initiatives, United Kingdom counterterrorism police emphasize the value of police-community relationships and the importance of learning.8 These valuable lessons are stressed because of the vital role they play in building community-based counterterrorism capabilities.
Experienced American law enforcement leaders have tried to harness the potential of community policing and recognize that police-community relationships are key. The Prevent experience in the United Kingdom does not differ from other police operations. The importance of lasting and genuine personal relationships between police and Muslim communities needs emphasis just like those between officers and other segments of society. While a wide-ranging series of factors can affect the ability of communities and police to build productive and trusting relationships, Muslim communities worldwide are affected and targeted most by al Qaeda-inspired violence and can be vital to preventing future events. Police must establish solid relationships with communities affected most and best positioned to help.
The emphasis on preventing al Qaeda-inspired violence causes a quandary. The question arises as to how officers and Muslim communities should frame their relationships without exclusively defining their mutual interests in national security terms. This represents a key consideration for U.S. law enforcement agencies as they seek to build genuine partnerships with these neighborhoods. Close, productive relationships between police and the community defy artificially imposed boundaries, yet they periodically may emphasize counterterrorism. They must stress effective government and law enforcement practices, neighborhood safety, and community participation in a healthy democracy. The value of developing and maintaining strong police-community relationships transcends definition by specific criminal concerns.
When seeking to build or sustain effective relationships, outreach to Muslim communities cannot constitute exclusively a counterterrorism issue. Law enforcement agencies and policy makers must recognize the impracticality and potential offensiveness of such a stance. Conversations should take place between police and these neighborhoods without the need to mention terrorism. The parties must refuse to allow their relationship to be framed by a single topic.
Similar to the experience of many American law enforcement officers, British police have experienced the challenge that a one-dimensional police-community relationship poses. No police officer would feel comfortable with someone suggesting that corruption or brutality serves as the lense through which communities should view law enforcement, just as no Muslim wants al Qaeda to affect how police regard Islamic communities.
During a research interview, a Muslim community member in the United Kingdom noted, “I think, you know, when you [the police] just knock on somebody’s door and say ‘Hey, what do you know about terrorism and extremism?’ they [Muslims] think, what the heck?” He went on to say, “I do not know, it is just this spontaneous questioning they just, they [police] just come out with at times. I think one thing I have to say that they [British counterterrorism police] have learned from generally is…building up relationships, and, as a result of relationships, then we can move forward and…talk about these issues.”9 An important characteristic of relationship building is that it takes time, and with time comes the ability to discuss sensitive issues when those conversations become necessary.
One of the key ways to correct misconceptions between law enforcement and communities is to spend time with one another. As in any other relationship, patrol officers and Muslim business owners, imams and precinct commanders, and two dads—one a Muslim physician and the other a law enforcement officer—whose children attend the same school need time to get to know one another. Establishing rapport can be uncomfortable; however, in the midst of a crisis after an emergency occurs and a contact is needed, officers and community members find it too late to begin the process.
The communication flow that develops through relationships proves vital. Officers must recognize that their associations do not exclusively entail gathering information on potential criminal threats. While this facet of counterterrorism is imperative, these affiliations also allow officers to establish key links to communities, thus facilitating the exchange of valuable knowledge. Information sharing is a two-way street, as evident in recent efforts by the FBI to use a network of Muslim leaders in southern Florida to explain a recent terrorism-related arrest.10
Sharing information with leaders before speaking to the press allows those with knowledge and influence in the community to have answers when faced with the inevitable questions that follow such an operation. It enables community leaders to take ownership of potential problems requiring solutions and empowers communities with information that enables them to work with law enforcement. The FBI often relies on relationships to educate key community members about an operation so that they, in turn, can educate others.11
The FBI example illustrates the importance of connections in facilitating the sharing of knowledge. What is key, especially in newly developing relationships, are efforts to know one another and not just figure out who can provide the best information.
As law enforcement agencies move forward using the community policing philosophy to address violent extremism, everyone involved has a great deal to learn. Many in American law enforcement lack a personal perspective with respect to the Muslim community. Police agencies and Islamic communities often do not know each other well, and both recognize they have much to understand. Police officers need to learn about Muslims and Islam from reputable sources, and Muslims need to know more about law enforcement personnel, their agencies, and their missions. This mutual knowledge and understanding directly supports effective public safety.
In essence, police-community outreach is an educational endeavor. When law enforcement leaders address public gatherings, they teach the community, consciously or not, about their organizations, philosophies, and guidelines. In meetings that Islamic leaders have with police, they try to share insightful information on Islam, Muslims, and individual communities. In this way, law enforcement officers and community leaders employ outreach as an opportunity for learning.
Perhaps law enforcement and communities should approach engagement specifically as an opportunity to teach and learn about one another and seek the best ways to accomplish this goal. Police officers often want the public to learn more about the challenges of law enforcement. This shared professional desire constitutes an education issue.
Many Muslims want the public to know more about them and their religion—not Islam as a topic for national security discussions, but as one of the world’s largest religions with a history, culture, and society that long preceded and likely will outlast terrorism.12 During a research interview, one British Muslim commented, “It is very important that those little things and gestures show that the other people know about your religion and that they respect each other’s religion. Then there is mutual respect.”13 Similar sentiments are shared by Muslims around the world.14
Law enforcement officers need to understand the pressing and probing questions about each individual community they serve, not just the criminal trends. They should recognize the real concerns of community: issues that make life in the area tough or rewarding, the Muslim community’s view of the media’s coverage of Islam, and the recent stories or experiences that might affect community views of the police. Officers ought to inquire how their organizations can address public safety concerns and best work with these segments of the community.
These topics do not differ from the usual concerns that informed law enforcement officers have when they work in partnership with any section of their city. Community policing within Muslim neighborhoods is not different from working with any other population.
A recent Pew Research study underlined the point that Muslims resemble any other segment of American society. The study emphasized how much Muslims in the United States are middle class and mainstream, just like their neighbors.15 Law enforcement practices and policies that recognize this reality more likely will succeed than those viewing Muslims as a distinctly different section of society or only in counterterrorism terms.
Community-centric police work can prove difficult. Experienced officers would not suggest that this type of assignment takes place in a vacuum, devoid of political influence. On this point British and American law enforcement probably would agree. Outreach is not easier than any other facet of police work. Often, law enforcement personnel ask, “Why can’t politics be left out of policing?” Astute leaders recognize the importance of an accurate appraisal of the political situation in any jurisdiction, as well as the ability to maneuver successfully and ethically within a politically charged environment.
Police and communities need to learn about political realities and seek to operate within those circumstances or change them. Using community engagement for addressing the threat of terrorism is no different, although some of the particular political challenges may be unique. Law enforcement officers and community members must recognize that politically charged events can affect community relations between police and Muslims across the country.
Relationships and learning in community policing intertwine and exist most effectively together. Individuals learn from people they know and trust and appreciate relationships with those willing to share their knowledge and experiences. Skilled police officers and community leaders know the importance of relationships and learning. A Prevent style of policing to address the threat of terrorism is not new to law enforcement.
Police and communities can employ the power of relationships and education for a new and important purpose. Changes to old ideas of community policing will be required. Officers must build new relationships and seek to learn about previously ignored sections of society. However, this is not an unmanageable task. Success likely will be measured by the speed and effectiveness with which cities reorient previous community policing capabilities to address this important issue without alienating Muslim communities, who should be seen as partners in the fight against terrorism.
Key to this effort is recognizing that law enforcement agencies and communities are in this together. Time-tested relationships and informed understanding of communities and police will reinforce this. Experienced officers recognize that engagement and partnerships between police and the public consistently bring about more thorough, inclusive, and informed strategies. As seen in the United Kingdom and the United States, this ultimately serves the goals of ethical government and the people.