Essential Elements of Community Security – Forward Observer Shop

Essential Elements of Community Security

A report produced last month for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) examines the rampant criminality across Latin America and determines some best practices for implementing community security.

Because regions of the U.S. may undergo changes that result in a close resemblance to the economic and security conditions found throughout Latin America, it’s very important to understand their security picture and then draw conclusions and lessons learned from their challenges.  Poor economic conditions and poverty already lead some individuals towards criminality and gang activity, and when economic conditions in the U.S. deteriorate and become sustained, there’s a greater likelihood that communities deal with increased criminality and gang activity.

The report identifies six dimensions of what they call “community violence.”  They are:

  • Lethality;
  • Location;
  • Involvement (number of individuals involved);
  • Spontaneity;
  • Activity Type (crimes of passion versus organized crime); and
  • Frequency

Being able to describe the qualities of community violence along these six dimensions is an important part of our ability to understand and define the community security problem.  As the saying goes, “A problem defined is a problem half-solved.”  From an intelligence perspective, it’s necessary for us to accurately understand the security situation before we attempt to provide intelligence support to operations.


Using the spectrum above, we can describe local conflicts during a SHTF scenario to help us better understand our security problem.  After we define the problem, we can begin actively working towards a solution.

Below are four community security strategies from the report, which are appropriate for SHTF security efforts.  (AC: Judged impact is based on empirical data, such as police reporting and crime statistics.)  Keep in mind that while these are largely methods used by law enforcement, they’re potential avenues for maintaining or bringing security to our communities in a SHTF scenario.  During an emergency or the outbreak of violence in our communities, we’re going to have to step in and provide security.

And also consider that SHTF community security is likely to be shaped around the irregular threat — criminals, looters, mobs, or organized gangs.  Effectively, you might be facing a low-intensity insurgency in your area that attempts to undermine the poor security situation or poor governance.  This already happens in many large cities where gangs operate outside the established rule of law, and instead operate under their own street laws.


Strong Impact

Focused deterrence was found to have a had a strong impact on community violence, and according to the report had the greatest impact of all methods.  In focused deterrence, security teams should focus on a problem, like a specific gang or type of crime, and use every means available to deter that crime or activity when encountered.  It often involves direct communication with perpetrators.  For instance, Boston-area law enforcement began a focused deterrence strategy in the 1990s to solve the city’s youth homicide problem.  During Operation Ceasefire, area law enforcement clearly communicated to gangs and other offenders that there was a zero tolerance policy for gang violence, and that when gang violence was encountered, the city would pursue the most severe means of dealing with the gang activity.  In response, the homicide rates among youths (ages 24 and under) decreased by 63%.


Modest Impact

Hot Spot Policing was found to have had a modest impact on community violence, and refers to policing a small geographic area where criminals or crime is concentrated.  For instance, if a gang is active in a specific area, then increased patrolling of that area would be an example of hot spot policing.  The criminal activity may decrease as a result or it may disperse to other areas.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, hot spot policing was practiced, as the goal was to bring security and support to that area long enough to empower the populace or local organizations to provide more of their own security.

Broken Windows Policing was found to have a had a modest impact on community violence.  The theory behind broken windows policing is that disorder in the community leads to more serious crimes.  For instance, city police might crack down on loitering in order to prevent property crimes, which might have lead to the formation of gangs or more serious crimes.

Neighborhood Watch programs were found to have a had a modest impact on community violence.  Neighborhood Watch programs are absolutely necessary, especially where intelligence is concerned.  In the Army, we stressed the importance of collecting valuable information by saying that Every Soldier Is a Sensor.  In other words, every set of eyes and ears is collecting intelligence information that might be very valuable to an intelligence analyst focused on providing the commander insights into threats in the battlespace.  Similarly, every resident in your community is also a sensor, and ultimately the question is what do they do with the information they collect?  If members of the community aren’t funneling timely information to the Community Protection Team, then we’re missing out on potentially actionable intelligence information.


In conclusion, I want to stress that community security starts now.  We have to be standing up our Neighborhood Watch groups and identifying problems that our community could face in the future.  The more problems we can solve today are problems that don’t grow out of control tomorrow.



Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.


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