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Community Ecosystem Analysis

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Community Ecosystem Analysis: Using Data to Apply Military Counterinsurgency Principles to Community Policing

Daniel Fisher

In recent years, Social Network Analysis (SNA) software has been used to map insurgent movements, terrorist networks, and criminal organizations. In US metropolitan areas experiencing high levels of organized crime or gang violence, SNA allows law enforcement officers to target those individual offenders (identified as nodes in a social network analysis map) who are most crucial to a criminal organization’s capacity to engage in illegal activity. Such individuals could be “bridges”—people who represent the human link, for instance, between a local gang and a national or transnational drug trafficking organization—or “influencers”—those individuals who most influence the activity of the criminal organization.[i] Perhaps counterintuitively, these subsets of criminal offenders need not be key leaders within the criminal organization, nor need they be the organization’s most egregious criminal offenders. Nonetheless, removing these individuals from the network often allows law enforcement agencies to disrupt and dismantle criminal organizations more effectively than through traditional target selection.

Intuitively, well-organized criminal enterprises can function in much the same way as insurgencies. Hence, my experience in Afghanistan supports the efficacy of SNA, when employed by savvy enforcers. Like insurgents, members of criminal organizations often blend into the populace, and take advantage of what author and Chicago Police Officer John Bertetto calls “undergoverned” spaces—“areas where government services (such as utilities, streets and sanitation, social, health, and public safety) are underrepresented, and where the criminal element does not desire to exert direct control over the population.”[ii] Criminal organizations also rely on the passive support of a populace unconvinced that the government can provide any real security—a populace that, because of this conviction, is susceptible to intimidation and coercion by the criminal organization.

SNA is said to be aligned with the basic tenets of community policing, a widely-adopted approach in which law enforcement agencies identify the reasons why crime occurs, and direct enforcement accordingly. In this sense, counterinsurgency doctrine overlaps substantially with the community policing model, to the extent that it urges practitioners to identify underlying sources of instability within a unit’s area of operations. The counterinsurgent who effectively addresses these sources of instability simultaneously removes the reason for the insurgency’s presence, undermining its popular support.

The similarities between insurgencies and criminal organizations, however, point to the need for a more robust model than that provided by current SNA software. In military speak, current SNA approaches apply an “enemy-centric” approach to a “population-centric” problem. That is, SNA focuses officers on attacking the criminal network rather than addressing those aspects of the community ecosystem that allow the criminal organization to exist in the first place. Even intelligent enforcement can perpetuate a persistent “whack-a-mole” game in which crime is never reduced to acceptable—or politically viable—levels.

Arguably, addressing the root causes of organized crime or gang violence is not a law enforcement function. Yet law enforcement agencies, much like the US Military in Iraq and Afghanistan, are consistently called upon to effect outcomes—such as a significant, lasting reduction in gang violence—that are best produced by a “whole of government” effort extending beyond the functional spectrum of enforcement activities. This phenomenon often leaves law enforcement agencies vulnerable to awkward political intervention, such as a mayor’s creation of a new special unit when crime suddenly spikes or when a jarring criminal event, such as the murder of a young, innocent bystander, occurs.

Although effective, SNA software addresses the criminal network, but does not account for those aspects of the community ecosystem that allow the network to form, grow, and perpetuate—those aspects of a community that are the true root causes of criminal activity, or which render the environment more permissive for it. A more robust approach—a Community Ecosystem Analysis (CEA) tool—would account for such factors. Where SNA reveals the organization of a criminal network, CEA reveals the organization of a community—including those nodes (physical, human, organizational, and infrastructural) that allow the criminal organization to flourish.

By extension, CEA bridges the gap between SNA and other counterinsurgency and community policing principles and tactics. Community policing, for instance, calls for engagement with local stakeholders in order to generate solutions to problems and increase trust in law enforcement. Generating solutions, however, necessitates a thorough understanding of the problems facing a community. Incorporating the methods of the French counterinsurgent David Galula—whose work heavily influenced the content of the now famous Army Field Manual 3-24—my small-unit (B Company, 2-18 Infantry, ably commanded by then CPT Christopher Mercado) set out to geospatially map our area of operations in Afghanistan. This work involved extensive “human terrain” reconnaissance, and included the administration of a census in local villages. Our intent was to create an interactive digital map of the prevailing landscape—geographic, human, and infrastructural—that would allow us to operate freely, identify hotspots of insurgent activity, and (most importantly) diagnose and address local sources of instability.

CEA would perform many of the same functions for both local law enforcement and municipal leaders. Using the new and improved technology reflected by the sophistication of such SNA software as GANG Analyzes Networks and Geography (GANG)—previously known as the Organizational, Relationship, and Contact Analyzer (ORCA)[iii]—created by the Chicago Police Department and the United States Military Academy, an effective CEA tool would allow police and municipal leaders to perform predictive analysis on potential ecosystem inputs both geospatially and spatial-temporally. Where SNA allows law enforcement agencies to predict the effect of removing a given node of a criminal network (the input) on the size and efficacy of the network (the output), CEA would allow government leaders, for example, to predict the effect of a given policy intervention—such as an increase in social service provision—on highly localized crime rates, such as those occurring within a ten-block radius of a certain street corner. CEA would be equally effective for analyzing non-policy-related changes in the community, such as the presence of a new local business or non-profit organization.

Community Ecosystem Analysis is by no means a tidy solution to the problems posed by criminal organizations. In reality, both law enforcement and municipal leaders are limited by many of the same challenges faced by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Resource limitations, political constraints, and the entrenched and enduring problems of high-crime communities, among other factors, pose significant barriers to addressing the root causes of criminal activity. However, the rapid pace of technological advance is rendering other barriers insignificant. The capacity of local governments and law enforcement agencies to collect and analyze data is quickly improving. Such improvements, in conjunction with the widespread adoption of community policing, render a population-centric approach to policing more viable, through the use of tools such as CEA.


Bertetto, John. "Counter-Gang Strategy: Adapted COIN in Policing Criminal Street Gangs." Small Wars Journal. 11 Nov. 2013. Web. 28 May 2014.

Bertetto, John. Series of Personal Interviews. March – May, 2014.

"Community Policing Defined." US Department of Justice. Web. 28 May 2014.

McGloin, Jean. "Street Gangs and Interventions: Innovative Problem Solving with Network Analysis." US Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. US Department of Justice. Web. 28 May 2014.

End Notes

[i] Bertetto, John. "Counter-Gang Strategy: Adapted COIN in Policing Criminal Street Gangs." Small Wars Journal. 11 Nov. 2013. Web. 28 May 2014.

[ii] Bertetto, John. Personal Interview. May 28, 2014.

[iii] Bertetto, John. Personal Interview. May 28, 2014.


About the Author(s)

Daniel Fisher served as an infantry rifle platoon leader and scout platoon leader for 2-18 IN, 170th IBCT in Kunduz Province, Afghanistan. He holds a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School and a Master of Business Administration from the Harvard Business School.