What Trump's Fight Against Extremism Can Learn From LA’s Counter-Gang Strategy

Given the U.S.’ unique struggle with homegrown extremism, the president should consider looking inward.
06/04/2017 08:32 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2017
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By Jacqueline R. Sutherland

In May, President Trump embarked on his inaugural overseas trip, stopping first in Saudi Arabia to discuss the importance of “honestly confronting the crisis of Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires.” It is pragmatic and surprisingly humble of Mr. Trump to engage with leaders from across the Muslim world to consider best practices and lessons learned from countering violent extremism (CVE) initiatives. The president’s speech at the Arab Islamic American Summit made no subtlety that “Muslim-majority countries must take the lead in stamping out radicalization.” However, what was notably absent from this address and its offering of partnership in the fight against terrorism was an acknowledgment of the United States’ own struggle with Islamist extremism or the identification of a plan to combat it.

While countering Islamist extremism is a relatively new challenge for the United States, countering violent extremism more broadly is not. White supremacists, criminal gangs, and non-jihadist domestic terrorists have plagued American communities for decades, if not generations. The imperative of reducing gang-related violence has presented acute difficulties in urban city centers such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Law enforcement officials have grappled with how to dismantle radical ideologies that justify violence, bridge misunderstandings between the “in” group and “out” group, and rehabilitate former extremists into functioning members of society who can trust and be trusted by their communities.

The imperative of reducing gang-related violence has presented acute difficulties in urban city centers such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York.

Given the United States’ unique struggle with homegrown violent extremism, President Trump should consider looking inward, as opposed to exclusively outward, to supplement lessons learned from international CVE programs with the best practices of the United States’ counter-gang strategies. More specifically, Mr. Trump should look to Los Angeles, California for its remarkable success in reducing gang-related crime.

The Los Angeles Police Department’s Counter-Gang Policing Strategy

Historically, Los Angeles has struggled with disrupting a multigenerational gang problem entangled by a web of allegiances across families, neighborhoods, and ideologies. In a city of 4 million people, there are over 450 documented gangs and more than 45,000 gang members within the city limits.

The magnitude of LA’s gang problem received national recognition during the “decade of death,” the years stretching from 1988 to 1998 when an average of 1,000 people were killed annually in gang-related homicides. In response, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) launched a suppression-driven war on gangs, incarcerating entire neighborhoods and attacking the gang identity in the attempt to diminish its attraction to susceptible youth. Not only was this method ineffective in reducing gang-related violence, but LAPD officers became vilified, earning a reputation as LA’s “biggest gang.” In the 1990s, LAPD’s anti-gang “CRASH” unit had over 70 of its officers implicated in misconduct and corruption charges in what became known as the “Rampart Scandal.”

The arrival of William Bratton as LAPD station chief in 2002 ushered in a new era of counter-gang policing strategy. The department shifted its policing efforts away from identity and towards behavior. Rather than targeting and arresting entire neighborhoods on the grounds of gang affiliation, officers avoided criminalizing identity and only arrested gang members who had violated the law. In other words, LAPD supplemented traditional law enforcement with the administration of social programs and community groups to create a shared sense of responsibility for public safety. As this new form of policing took root across LA’s most gang-ridden neighborhoods, violence and homicide rates dropped precipitously. From 2007 to 2015, gang-related homicides declined 67 percent. During the same time period, gang-related crime decreased by 55 percent.

Extracting Priorities from LAPD’s Experience to Guide CVE Strategy

While gang membership and gang-related crimes are decidedly different from terrorists and terrorism, there are several noteworthy parallels that can be used to inform the United States’ CVE efforts writ large.

First, LAPD’s experience illuminates the effectiveness of intervention over suppression. Given the preachings of ISIL and al-Qaeda – that the West is at war with Islam – the tactic of suppression in CVE initiatives is not only counterproductive, but dangerous; the suppression of Islamist extremists’ identity puts them on the defensive, further distancing them from feeling allegiance to or pride in their Western communities, and facilitating their ability to dehumanize it.

Second, the tactic of intervention must be administered as part of an integrated strategy that also includes prevention, rehabilitation, and ongoing relationship-based policing. As evidenced by LAPD’s new era of counter-gang policing strategy, law enforcement’s participation in community social programs is paramount because it serves both a deterrent and restorative function; it helps build trust between susceptible extremists and law enforcement officials, thereby humanizing both parties and incentivizing collaboration in pursuit of a safer community.

Third, while membership to or association with a terrorist group is criminalized by the U.S. government, LAPD’s experience demonstrates the effectiveness of focusing policing efforts on behavior versus identity. This practice does not have a seamless application to the CVE space because one’s identification with a known or suspected terrorist group is arguably the strongest indicator of future unlawful action and, therefore, cannot be ignored nor minimized by law enforcement. However, from a community policing standpoint, CVE efforts and community programs should be aimed at preventing and disrupting extremist behavior. Rather than attempting to challenge the ideological convictions of an extremist’s affiliation, CVE programs should seek to dismantle the attractiveness of an extremist lifestyle, undercut by extremist actions.

The community challenges presented by countering violent extremism as it pertains to both suspected terrorists and gang members are part and parcel of a multigenerational problem. One of the most notable differences between terrorist groups and gangs is that the latter has a physical footprint whereas the former is increasingly taking shape through the virtual cables of technology and its manifestation of inspired terrorism. While many counterterrorism experts regard these virtual links to extremism as a barrier to detection, it has notable advantages from a CVE perspective. If a prospective extremist has not fully entered the on-ramp to violent extremism, they are more likely to favor physical community over a virtual one if it offers them respect, relatability, and the agency to shape a positive future for themselves.

If President Trump is serious about his stated mission to “be guided by the lessons of experience, not the confines of rigid thinking,” he should identify a domestic CVE strategy that incorporates lessons learned from LAPD’s approach to countering gangs. LAPD’s experience demonstrates that this administration must be willing to invest in a constitutional and compassionate policing strategy that distinguishes between identity and behavior if it wants to combat Islamist extremism at home.

Jacqueline R. Sutherland is the Terrorism & Asymmetric Warfare Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She is also a security-focused Senior Analyst at The Chertoff Group and a non-resident Counterterrorism Fellow at the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation. She holds a Master’s in International History from the London School of Economics.

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