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Toward Operational Art for Policing

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October 29, 2009
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by John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus –

The military, facing a complex and intractable mixture of “wicked problems” on the battlefield, has responded with a doctrinal revolution in the production and practice of operational theory.  But most police agencies don’t incorporate the “operational level of maneuver” into their planning and concept of operations.   We face a constellation of complex “high-intensity policing” problems such as counterterrorism, transnational organized crime and gangs that demand development of a true operational art and doctrine, rather than current focus on tactical response. The police service desperately requires an understanding of operational theory and must develop operational doctrine to successfully address contemporary threats.

The Mumbai operation demonstrates the problem facing tactical counterterrorism response. Multiple elements utilizing swarming tactics and an overarching command and control node overwhelmed a police command overwhelmingly oriented on tactical encounters. Closer to home, cartels and street gangs have posed operational challenges to police throughout Latin America, showing discipline and coordination largely disdained by American gangsters.

Police practice is largely structured around managing individual incidents and cases.  This is often expressed as tactically responding to calls for service or individual SWAT responses. A broader, comprehensive view of the operational space as a whole, and the impact of multiple tactical operations is largely absent.  Concepts such as operational space shaping, intelligence, threat early warning and operational maneuver are largely ignored. This tactical mindset hinders coordination of complex crimes and disasters and degrades interagency cooperation. The closest thing to operational coordination in police operations is the Incident Command System (ICS) and National Incident Management System (NIMS). While NIMS provides the backbone for operational coordination in active incidents, it is mainly logistical and command-oriented. NIMS’ incident-specific nature does not provide a “command concept” for continuing and future operations

Police are understandably wary of appearing to be too militarized, but the near systemic ignorance of operational theory and insights arising from the military counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations will not serve police well if criminal insurgents or terrorists target the domestic space. The trend of “global guerrillas” waging netwar has been observed for twenty years and there is little reason to think that it will cease.  Additionally, there is a convergence between police and military operations abroad that could be a source of insights for police response to potential and emerging high intensity threats.

Perhaps most harmful is the lack of an intellectual forum for doctrinal research and development. Police journals focus overwhelmingly on the tactical or technical level of operations. It is important to make sure that tactical response is pitch-perfect and that use and acquisition of equipment is satisfactory to police needs. These are the building blocks of operational response. But in order for operational innovation to occur law enforcement agents on the local, state, and federal level must be able to share their insights with each other in a scholarly forum. Journals and forums for doctrinal debate, red teaming and strategic futurism would do much to help the growth of operational police doctrine.

What would operational theory for police look like? In military theory operational art occurs at the theater level, the place where strategic objectives are implemented tactically. Yet the operational art is not a collection of tactical engagements. Rather, it is a concept of how to best use organizational resources to implement strategic aims. The operational level of police engagement is much smaller than the military theater level. But on the regional level, particularly in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles County or New York City, the challenge is just as great. Operational doctrine for police would focus on harmonizing three strategic capabilities: understanding and shaping the operational space, intelligence/investigations, and operational response.

Understanding and shaping the operational space is easily the most important of the three. Gaining advantage over criminal netwarriors and terrorists requires deployment of police resources in flashpoints or trouble spots, understanding the population through community policing, and formation of plans for community resilience.

As response to irregular foes is largely a targeting duel, developing an ability for targeted intelligence and investigations on a “geosocial” level is an important tool. Police already carry out investigations of organized crime and terrorism, but such investigations need to be integrated into a larger capability for net assessment of the operational space as a whole. Police need mechanisms for building a holistic view of the operational space, including open-source intelligence and social scientific survey. These abilities can inform operational concepts for action as well as better guide deep indications and warning (I&W) assessments to head off terrorism, crime, and insurgency.

Operational response must be formulated to deal with swarming. We have outlined such a concept in our papers “Postcard from Mumbai: Modern Urban Siege” and “Preventing Another Mumbai: Building a Police Operational Art.” Police must mobilize quickly to halt attackers in place, isolate their positions, and then neutralize them with heavier follow-on forces. In turn, command and control (C2) functions and doctrine must become agile enough to support police during operational level engagements. The police commander must be able to visualize his forces in space and time.

All of these steps can help build what RAND analyst Carl H. Builder called a “Command Concept.” Command concepts of future operations inform the usage of resources and the nature of information that must flow up and down the chain of command. They enable a more intuitive command and usage of information. Command concepts are indicative of a genuinely operational focus. Tactical focus, however, inevitably leads to a focus on the technical level of operations as a means of supporting tactical missions. In a complex emergency, a tactically and technically-focused commanding element finds themselves a prisoner of their tactical equipment, reacting to rather than guiding events.

Building a command concept for police operations will not be easy. An institutional focus on tactics will be difficult to overcome. Building operational concepts—i.e., an appreciation and application of operational art—is essential to future excellence in the modern operational space.   An understanding of the operational level of maneuver and conflict, as well as the development of doctrine and “network protocols” for operational maneuver is necessary to address the new constellation of challenges and threats facing the modern urban “global city.”

John P. Sullivan is a career police officer. He currently serves as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department where he is assigned to the Emergency Operations Bureau. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism (CAST). His research focuses on counterinsurgency, intelligence, terrorism, transnational gangs, and urban operations. He is co-editor Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a Global Counterterrorism Network (Routledge, 2006).

Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security. He is currently Associate Editor at Red Team Journal. His articles have been published in Red Team Journal, Small Wars Journal and other publications. Mr. Elkus blogs at Rethinking Security, Dreaming 5GW, and the Huffington Post. He is currently a contributor to the Center for Threat Awareness’ ThreatsWatch project.

For Additional Reading

John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Police Operational Art for a Five-Dimensional Operational Space,” Small Wars Journal, July 2009.

John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Preventing Another Mumbai: Building a Police Operational Art,” CTC Sentinel, June 2009.

John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Postcard from Mumbai: Modern Urban Siege“, Small Wars Journal, February 2009.