Unless one is living under a rock these days then they likely know that there is an ongoing conversation between the need for police forces, how police forces deal with the citizenry and if there is a need to reform policing in America. The discussion ranges from conversations towards outright rebellion.

In political science there is a term often used to describe areas where the government has failed to keep control. The term is malgoverned spaces. In malgoverned spaces, the government fails to enforce the laws.

An example of malgoverned spaces are the criminal gangs in México and Central America. These spaces can be as little as a neighborhood to whole states. The defining element is that the criminal gangs operate without the effective interference of the government.

Unlike a failed state, which is often confused with a malgoverned space, the government remains mostly in control while the criminal activities flourish. There may be significant legal commerce and public services continue to function in malgoverned spaces, but the rule of law is usurped by the government’s inability to control the criminal elements within a specific domain.

Unlike a failed state, a malgoverned space represents specific areas of the political entity.

What does malgoverned spaces have to do with the ongoing debate about the place police forces have in society is the likely question many are asking themselves.

It lies in that the police forces are the vanguard of the enforcement of laws. For police forces to operate they need the support of the citizenry. Very few, if any, jurisdictions have a large enough police force to force the citizenry to comply because the citizenry outnumbers the police forces significantly. To operate effectively, the police force counters the lack of its force by having the citizenry support its efforts. An uncompliant citizenry makes it impossible for the police force to operate in a zone.

Hearts and Minds of the People

In classic counter-insurgency strategy, hearts and minds is the doctrine of countering subversives by enforcing the principal that the police system means a stable government. In other words, a stable police force means that the population believes that the government is in control and therefore the subversive elements in the population are a lost cause.

David Epstein wrote in The Police Role in Counterinsurgency Efforts, (1) that the “population of any given area holds the key to the success of any insurgency movement.” The 1968 article by Epstein lays out a blueprint on how to counter an insurgency using the police forces of the region in question.

Epstein argues that the police will need items such as “automatic weapons, armored cars, and light aircraft” in their inventory to impose law and order. Epstein’s “checklist” lists action items such as “alarm triggers” that police forces use to keep control. One such “alarm trigger” is the “stranger” in the area or “the bicycle parked next to a public building”.

To allow meager police resources to effectively control the area, Epstein suggests using “selective enforcement guidelines” that allow the police to focus on disruptive elements in the population. “The control of the population and material resources…will be a police responsibility,” argues Epstein. Epstein adds, “entire populations of a region must be registered and identified by the police.”

Epstein writes that during an insurgency, in addition to defending against the insurgency the police forces must continue to control crime. To do so, Epstein argues that police forces must be increased and to accomplish that “police recruiting standards will have to be revised downwards to obtain sufficient personnel.”

To counter the lower quality police forces, Epstein puts the onus on quality police activities on the leadership of the police forces. “A 50 percent savings in training time can produce a professional cripple for half a decade,” writes Epstein. He adds, police “discipline must become almost draconian”.

Continuing, Epstein points out that “when police become alienated from the population,” they then become the enemy of the people. The police begin to think of themselves in terms of “its them against us”.

Although Epstein’s template is designed for countering an insurgency looking to topple a government, his thoughts on police and counterinsurgencies is useful for exploring why and how America’s police forces have evolved.

Looking at Epstein’s work it readily becomes apparent that America’s police forces have evolved away from criminal interdiction into containing potential American insurgencies. For example, note that most American police forces are armed with military weapons. Most have intelligence gathering services and specialized tactical units (SWAT). Some operate aircraft and drones for tactical operations and surveillance.

Compare America’s police forces to those of countries like Britain where most front-line police forces are unarmed. The British model views policing as one of consent of the people, meaning that British police owe their allegiance to the people rather than to the country’s government.

Therein lies the disconnect between America’s police forces and its citizenry. It is here that the problems of policing in America begins. America’s police forces have become forces for imposing law and order on an insurgency rather than enforcing the law of the people.


1. The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science, Northwestern University School of Law, Vol. 59, No. 1, 1968

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...