The Demilitarization Ruse

President Obama touts Camden as a model of police demilitarization. But the city has taken counterinsurgency surveillance to a new level.

The Camden County Police's intelligence center, where officers monitor electronic surveillance measures throughout the city. Tony Kurdzuk / Star-Ledger

Early last week President Obama travelled to Camden to hold the city up as “a symbol of progress for the nation.” In 2012 the city’s violent crime rate was the highest in the country: 2,566 violent crimes for every 100,000 people, or 560 times the national average. The police chief described the murder rate as “somewhere between Honduras and Somalia.” The drug trade was the most vibrant economic activity in the city, bringing in $250 million annually. Researchers estimated that Camden was home to 175 open air drug markets, one for every 440 residents.

Two years later, a county police force replaced the city police and adopted a “community oriented” approach, increasing foot patrols and expanding community programming. Murders dropped 47 percent, and violent crime decreased 24 percent. Police operations dispersed 65 percent of the city’s drug markets.

This apparently self-evident success provided a backdrop for Obama’s public unveiling of the recommendations of his police reform task force. The most publicized of these reforms were the new restrictions on the type of military equipment police departments can receive.

“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” the president explained. “It can alienate and intimidate local residents, and send the wrong message. So we’re going to prohibit some equipment made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for local police departments.”

Bayonets, grenade launchers, ammunition of .50 caliber or larger, and tracked (but not wheeled) armored vehicles are now banned items. Amid widespread protests against police violence, many have welcomed the president’s address as the first steps toward police demilitarization. But we should be skeptical of this conclusion — and of the conventional notion of police militarization itself.

Historically, policing reforms have drawn on the military’s“reservoir of imperial expertise in social control.” Police are not corrupted by the military models. Rather, these two institutions of state violence develop in tandem. Often they do the same work: quelling restive and rebellious populations.

When the police dive deep into the “reservoir of imperial expertise,” they don’t always come up with spectacular weaponry. The “militarizing” reforms can be more insidious. This is precisely what occurred in Camden and is now being proposed as a national model: Obama neglected to mention the military-style intelligence system that complements “community policing” in Camden.

These police operations often begin at interagency intelligence facilities, or “fusion centers,” which pool data, share resources, and identify potential threats to public order. There are currently 268 federally funded fusion centers and countless more funded by state and local governments.While fusion centers are known on the Left and Right for their surveillance of political activists, their more routine work managing urban poverty is under-appreciated.

Camden is a striking example. Four different fusion centers serve this city of 77,000. In 2012 and 2013, officers and analysts at the statewide fusion center, the New Jersey Regional Operations Intelligence Center, were busy monitoring the crescendo of crime in Camden. At the time, I was a fly on the wall, conducting interviews as part of a larger study of domestic intelligence in New York and New Jersey.

Inside the fusion center, the Camden that President Obama touted as a national example was nowhere to be seen. Intelligence analyst worked diligently to assemble large social network analyses of drug networks, sprawling link charts that mapped out a massive web of relations: lines of authority in the distribution network, extending outward to the kinship and friendship relationships and even possessions (businesses, automobiles, guns) of the individuals.

Five of the analysts I interviewed developed their skills in the military. Another, a private contractor from Digital Globe, crunched five hundred layers of data to forecast future shootings, using software initially developed to predict the location of roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The New Jersey State Police, the lead agency at the fusion center, also sent an “intelligence collection cell,” a group of troopers to embed with Camden police. As a senior trooper explained, “we’re actually going to ride along with you and, when you lock up somebody in Camden, we’re going to debrief them and interview them. We’re going to gather intelligence and send it back here for analysis.”

These ongoing efforts to collect “human intelligence” — information gleaned from interpersonal relations — are taking place in an environment transformed by other forms of surveillance: 121 cameras that cover the whole city; 35 “shotspotter” microphones that detect gunshot locations; automated license plate readers; and SkyPatrol, a mobile observation post that can scan six square blocks with thermal-imaging equipment.

Much of this intelligence and crime data gets filtered back to the fusion center, where analysts create “actionable intelligence” to direct police operations: link charts, maps of crime hotspots, booklets with pictures and profiles of persons of interests and other “intelligence products.”

When I was conducting interviews, the intelligence analysts were preparing for what would become Operation Padlock. After nine months of intelligence collection, a multiagency team launched 93 targeted operations over seven weeks in August and September 2012. They made 535 arrests, confiscated $35,535 in cash and $44,300 in drugs, towed nearly 70 vehicles, and closed a Chinese restaurant for health code violations.

Operation Padlock and similar initiatives suppressed the worst of the violence that permeates Camden’s drug trade. They created the political space that allowed for the much-lauded community policing programs. Most importantly, however, Operation Padlock and the wider intelligence system that enabled it recast “community policing” as a kinder, gentler component of what’s essentially a strategy of counterinsurgency.

In the most general sense, community policing encourages residents to report crimes to the police and calls upon them to resolve disputes. Police are implored to get out of their cars and walk the streets, residents to aid in the hunt for the bad guys. But community policing is never simply a well-intentioned effort to bring the government closer to the people. It enlists residents and community leaders in the work of policing. It informally incorporates residents into the state’s repressive apparatus.

Sometimes this develops into more formal partnerships. In Camden, for example, the police have recruited community leaders to monitor surveillance cameras. As an officer who works in community policing programs in upstate New York told me:

There’s an intelligence collection component to community policing. The neighborhood watch and community policing meetings are a source of information. Once in a great while, you can even develop an informant out of these programs. You’ll get someone to work with you on a formal basis as part of an investigation. They will collect intelligence from within the community.

President Obama can celebrate the Camden model because he does not acknowledge the larger picture, the massive intelligence collection effort that relies on both community policing and police raids. Police don’t need M-16s and “Mine Resistant Ambush Protected” armored personnel carriers to be “militarized.” The massive intelligence system hidden from public view suffices.

There’s an emerging elite consensus about the need to change policing and the prison system. President Obama and libertarians agree that the cops should give back their military hardware. Hillary Clinton and the Koch Brothers are finding common ground on mass incarceration. Is this a signal of coming dramatic change and a real victory? With Camden in mind, we should be wary of what passes for demilitarization and criminal justice reform.

For one, Obama’s limits on military transfers don’t go nearly far enough. If police departments provide specific guidelines governing the use of equipment, they can still receive wheeled tactical vehicles, flash bang grenades, unmanned aerial vehicles, riot equipment, and, with particular interest to intelligence operations, “command and control” vehicles or the mobile command centers that provide “enhanced communications and other situational awareness capabilities.”

Some critics have even called Obama’s announcement a public relations ploy Peter Kraska, the foremost expert on SWAT teams, recently told NPR that he’s “never run across an instance of a police department with a track-driven [armored personnel carrier].”

Obama’s other proposals cut both ways. The “Police Data Initiative” is clearly an effort to address concerns about police abuse. The pilot program in twenty-one cities includes an initiative to develop and evaluate early warning systems to identify officers “having challenges in their interactions with the public.”

At the same time, these measures can also increase the technical capacities of police agencies to monitor and track populations — and do so in a more cost-effective manner. They further enhance the intelligence systems that link community policing to a broader counterinsurgency campaign in places capital has devastated. These reforms do not resolve fundamental social problems. At best they ameliorate the worst symptoms — the carnage that overtook Camden’s streets in 2012.

And finally, the outsized focus on demilitarization implies that policing somehow wasn’t brutal and lethal before the War on Drugs ramped up — that a class society founded on racial subordination was humanely policed before SWAT teams started kicking down doors.

We should ask if Obama’s much-lauded reforms further entrench and legitimize these same criminal justice institutions, or whether they are steps toward a broader transformation, to a world without police and prisons.