Communities beset by seemingly unbreakable cycles of violence; law enforcement overmatched to the point of essentially ceding sovereignty to an organized and heavily armed resistance; citizens so intimidated by thugs that they won’t report them to authorities, for fear of retribution. Eight years into the War on Terror, this scenario sounds familiar. But its location isn’t the Sunni Triangle in 2006 or southern Afghanistan today; it’s a farm town on California’s Central Coast.

In Salinas—a predominantly Hispanic, blue-collar community best known for producing John Steinbeck—violence has spiraled out of control. With a population of under 150,000, the city’s homicide rate has rocketed to three times that of Los Angeles, largely the result of fighting between the rival Norteños and Sureños gangs. With murders at an all-time high in 2009 (29 as of late December), residents are understandably frightened. When the police go searching for answers in the aftermath of a gang killing, self-interest prevails. Citizens more confident in the gangs’ ability to retaliate than in the cops’ ability to protect them stay mum.

Salinas’s mayor, Dennis Donohue, and his new police chief, Louis Fetherolf, want to reverse this vicious cycle. They think that they may have found a solution 7,500 miles to the east and 17 miles to the west. Those are the distances to Iraq, where General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy, generally known as “the surge,” saved a nearly failed state from implosion; and to the city of Monterey, where the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) hosts students and faculty eager to apply the surge’s lessons to Salinas. A team of NPS volunteers is combing through the city’s law enforcement data in granular detail. Once the work is complete, they plan to recommend ways that Salinas can apply counterinsurgency strategy to its pervasive violence.

If the application of military strategy to domestic law enforcement leaves you feeling queasy, you’re not alone. “Be careful what you wish for,” cautioned Nathan Hodge, writing on Danger Room, the national-security blog of Wired. “Counterinsurgency is still a tool for dealing with political emergencies, and it involves a heavy degree of population control. And at home, it’s a bridge too far.” Warning against the dangers of checkpoint operations and “cordon and knock” procedures (a genteel version of door-to-door searches), Hodge approvingly quoted Lieutenant John P. Sullivan of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department: “The liberty issues are vital. What gives you legitimacy in the long haul is preserving liberty while providing security. If you don’t end up doing it right, it ends up enhancing the legitimacy of the gang.”

Sullivan is right—up to a point. The freedom-security balance is the sine qua non of free societies under conventional circumstances. But it borders on irrelevant in the middle of chaos. As in pre-Petraeus Iraq, Salinas’s worst neighborhoods are hotbeds of violent anarchy—Hobbesian atmospheres where talk of ordered liberty is academic. While Sullivan is correct to note that the tactics applied in the Iraqi counterinsurgency campaign shouldn’t be grafted onto the domestic front without alteration, his experience in Los Angeles should steer him away from a wholesale rejection. For the City of Angels may be California’s best example of why the lessons of counterinsurgency deserve a broader hearing.

On taking the reins of the Los Angeles Police Department in 2002, Chief William Bratton began implementing many of the same policies that he had used to transform New York City from a crime-ridden cesspool into America’s safest large city. By the time Bratton departed L.A. in 2009, he had achieved a similar renaissance. Some of his tactics show a surprising resemblance to counterinsurgency fundamentals. Through community policing, Bratton emphasized the need for a permanent, visible police presence, just as Petraeus realized that establishing enduring safety begins with convincing local populations of the sincerity and efficacy of security forces. Likewise, the use of software to analyze security threats and predict future behavior—a key tactic in Iraq—is essentially an application of Compstat, the method for analyzing crime through precise metrics that Bratton used to great effect in both New York and Los Angeles.

According to a recent profile of the Salinas project in the Washington Post, the new strategy’s NPS architects hope that, if successful, it can be replicated in similarly ravaged communities. Violence can reach gruesome extremes in gang-heavy pockets like Compton, Fresno, Oakland, and Santa Ana. Local governments have tried everything from filing injunctions to prevent gangs from congregating in public to sponsoring after-school programs to keep at-risk youth off the streets. Results have been mixed, at best.

With gangs predominating in California neighborhoods where civic bonds are usually weak—thanks to language barriers, ethnic sectarianism, and abysmal public education—law and order become the last links to meaningful citizenship. And with the nation’s highest rate of criminal recidivism, California can ill afford to lose young residents of urban neighborhoods to lawlessness en masse. Some people claim that preventing this fate is an impossible task—but then, that’s what they told Petraeus and Bratton.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next