Paradoxes of Community Policing in Counterterrorism
by Sahar Aziz
Over the past few years, federal officials have expressed concerns about a perceived increase in a “Islamist homegrown terrorist” threat. High-profile cases involving “lone wolves” accused of terrorist plots on U.S. soil coupled with public perceptions of Muslims as prone to terrorism have triggered a flurry of congressional hearings and executive reports recommending more aggressive counterterrorism enforcement focused on Muslim communities. Meanwhile, critics of “hard” counterterrorism tactics propose increasing community outreach to Muslim communities, through community policing in particular, as the solution to homegrown terrorism. As a consequence, community policing has become popular both among policy makers seeking to be more preventive in counterterrorism and Muslim community leaders concerned with protecting the civil liberties of their constituents.
But community policing in counterterrorism as currently envisioned betrays its rhetoric of empowerment and mutual trust, and serves as another tool in the federal government’s toolkit that perpetuates the “terrorist other” stereotype. Until this stereotype can be stripped away from “hard on terror” preventive counterterrorism strategies, the benefits gained in the traditional local community policing model of the 1990s are unlikely to be realized. And Muslim communities have the most to lose.
In contrast to traditional community policing where citizens seek the protection of local law enforcement from third-party drug dealers, gangsters, and other criminal elements, Muslim communities engage with federal law enforcement to dissuade them from spying on their mosques and social gatherings, targeting their vulnerable youth in informant-led terrorist plots, prosecuting their charities for giving humanitarian aid to conflict zones, and adopting invidious counterterrorism tactics that destroy community bonds. And as they beseech their government to respect their civil liberties, Muslims must also seek the protection of law enforcement against private acts of violence and discrimination. For many Muslims, the government may come across as more a foe than a friend.
Thus, counterterrorism community policing (“CCP”) is not, nor is it intended to be, the same as community policing in the traditional criminal context. Rather than fundamentally change relations between law enforcement and communities into a partnership, CCP perpetuates preventive counterterrorism strategies that prioritize surveillance, investigation, prosecution, and conviction of Muslims.
Put simply, community policing co-opts Muslim community leaders into gathering and sharing intelligence on Muslims’ political beliefs, religious practices, and other information otherwise unavailable to law enforcement due to constitutional constraints. Believing they are serving the best interests of Muslim communities, many unwitting participants disclose the on-goings of the community and provide information about the politics of community leaders and mosques. This enables law enforcement’s investigative arm to reach deeper into Muslim communities’ affairs than they could otherwise, resulting in a de facto deputization process. All the while, aggressive counterterrorism enforcement practices and policies focused exclusively on Muslims remain unchanged.
Herein lies the paradox—Muslims have little choice but to engage with the same entities that both violate their civil liberties and legitimize civil rights violations by private actors. Indeed, for many Muslim proponents of community policing, it offers a formal mechanism to reform counterterrorism practices that adversely impact Muslim communities’ civil liberties. Accordingly, community policing is likely to exacerbate, rather than resolve, the underlying subordination of Muslims post-9/11 manifested in racialized counterterrorism policies notwithstanding the increase of homegrown terrorism threats from white supremacists groups, far right militia groups, and anti-immigrant extremists.
Proponents of community policing between law enforcement and Muslim communities erroneously presume a convergence of interest between the two. Moreover, they shortsightedly focus on local policing when in practice federal law enforcement agencies drive counterterrorism enforcement. In the end, community policing is merely an extension of the federal government’s prosecutorial approach that prioritizes law enforcement’s interests in expanding the number of anti-terrorism investigations and prosecutions at the expense of key collective rights of American Muslim communities’ and the kinds of community alliances essential to defeat genuine terrorism threats. These include the rights to be free from surveillance, practice their religion without undue scrutiny by the state, travel to their countries of origin without fear of being watch listed or exiled on No Fly Lists, and politically mobilize their communities without inviting further government scrutiny.
Rather than meaningfully address these problems, community policing bolsters the broader strategy of integrating local police as the eyes and ears on the ground in the federal counterterrorism regime. As a result, federal funding will seduce some local law enforcement into the process through attractive federal funds while others eventually will abandon the project to preserve the credibility necessary for decreasing non-terrorism crimes with the assistance of the communities they serve. In the end, for community policing to work federal law enforcement culture and practices must abandon the adversarial model. In light of the post-9/11 politics built on the assumption that Muslims are inherently prone to terrorism; such changes are unlikely in the near future.
So long as countering terrorism is driven more by the identity of the suspect rather than the nature of the crime, communities and local law enforcement alike should reject community policing in counterterrorism.
This article is based on a more in-depth analysis of community policing, Policing Terrorists in the Community