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To counter gangs, Springfield adopts tactics from war zones

Kevin Kit Parker, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and a professor at Harvard, chatted with Springfield police Lieutenant Rupert Daniel.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

SPRINGFIELD — US soldiers' strategies to stop insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan have found a new application in an odd place: a tough neighborhood in Springfield.

State and local police, led by troopers who learned counterinsurgency in foreign war zones, are using similar techniques here, in an attempt to combat gang violence. And there are early indications the three-year-old experiment is working, according to an analysis by Harvard students. The team hopes its efforts here will yield lessons for police elsewhere in the United States and soldiers abroad.

"We want to make Springfield a laboratory, the way Framingham is for heart disease; let's turn this into a science," said Harvard professor Kevin Kit Parker, who himself worked in counterinsurgency during deployments in Afghanistan.


The idea to adapt counterinsurgency tactics for Springfield grew out of a simple observation: Gang members, like terrorists in a war zone, rely on the passive protection of a community. The majority of the residents are law-abiding but not motivated to turn in the bad guys.

"Terrorists and insurgents operate in failed states. Gang members move into failed neighborhoods," said Michael Cutone, a state trooper and Green Beret who is one of the leaders of the effort.

The early results show that arrests are up in the neighborhood, even as Springfield police found crime has fallen sharply and become less serious. But measuring other aspects of social change here has proved challenging.

As a member of the Army's Special Forces in Avghani, Iraq, from 2005 to 2006, Cutone had practiced counterinsurgency on a daily basis. His unit had trained Iraqi infantry and set up a police department. But he had also sat on the floor with village elders and shared their goat meat dishes or helped kids get medical care. He wondered whether the same process of building trust and legitimacy with the community, of helping people solve their own problems, could help at home.


He discussed his notion with Springfield deputy police chief John Barbieri, who was eager to try something new. He said the neighborhood had become too "inured, apathetic, or afraid" for traditional police tactics to have their needed effect; no one was calling in suspicious behavior or crimes.

A centerpiece of their strategy is a weekly meeting, held in a sparsely furnished ground-floor room of a brick high-rise apartment building in Springfield's impoverished North End. It is open to anyone with a stake in the neighborhood — residents, city representatives, and others — and resembles the "elders' meetings" that Cutone and Parker held in Iraq and Afghanistan, where village leaders joined with soldiers to discuss problems big and small. Here, the discussion ranges from how to deal with properties that have become magnets for drug deals to how to help a teenager get a job.

The police built their network person by person.

Cutone pulled over Gary Linsky for running a stop sign. Linsky, who owns a construction company, didn't really like cops, but Cutone offered to let him out of the ticket if he came to the meeting. He has now been attending for 2½ years and said he has given jobs to nine people referred to him by Cutone.

Linsky's son was buying drugs in the neighborhood and is now in jail, and that has only sharpened Linsky's motivation.

"We're getting into the community, making people who would never talk to anybody, start to relinquish information," Linsky said.


When a woman in the neighborhood was being harassed by adolescents who were damaging her property, Cutone went door to door to talk to each of their families and ask them for their help. He told them about after-school programs, alerted them that the police wanted to restore a sense of community, but also warned them that if the misbehavior continued, their kids could get into real trouble. Cutone said it is akin to what he would do in Iraq.

"That shows the community, 'Hey, we're going to take action and we're going to assist you and offer you different options,' " Cutone said.

Jose A. Gonzalez, a retired firefighter who has long lived in the neighborhood, said he has seen the environment shift.

"Yeah, we have drug problems, but it's not as rampant, not as obvious as before," he said. "Now we're dealing with the police on a first-name basis. That didn't happen before."

Cutone and Parker are buddies in the same National Guard unit, and about three years ago, the trooper began telling the professor about a neighborhood in Springfield where gang members had become so brazen they rode motorcycles with assault rifles strapped to their backs.

Parker is not a criminologist or a sociologist. He is a bioengineer, best known for his work to build a beating heart from scratch. But his scientific interests often veer toward practical problems he encountered on the battlefield.


Parker wanted to understand how counterinsurgency worked and figure out how it could be improved. He compares it to other engineering problems: If he wanted to know how to destroy a tank, he could make a calculation or run a simulation to figure out how much ordnance he would need. He wanted to see if an engineering approach could make counterinsurgency more effective.

Earlier this year, he brought a class of undergraduates to Springfield to assess the program's impact. They called themselves the "Counter Gang," and he directed them to look at a broad range of factors, everything from rates of sexually transmitted diseases to home prices to school absenteeism. In a command center in the basement of a building off Oxford Street in Cambridge, maps of the neighborhood were posted, red dots signifying the distribution of graffiti or crime.

The team's final report is still being prepared. But the researchers found calls for service went up and arrests rose, an indication that people were reporting crimes, not that the situation had worsened. Overall, crime decreased by more than half after the first year of the intervention, according to a Springfield police analysis.

Graffiti, often used by gangs as billboards to direct buyers to drug dealers, also decreased dramatically. But other measures, such as property prices or the number of new businesses, seemed to show little effect, the Harvard team found.

Students also developed software to help police efficiently create intelligence reports, a system that could enable them to identify social ties, patterns, and trends and rapidly understand the context of new incidents.


Now, through a start-up called Nucleik, they are hoping to refine the software and make it widely available.

The Springfield initiative is not the only effort to deploy counterinsurgency in unusual situations. Sylvia Longmire, a former special agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and author of the book, "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars,'' said she is contributing to a Department of Defense project that will study the possible utility of counterinsurgency tactics to the Mexican drug war.

Peter Mansoor, a professor of military history at Ohio State University who previously served as executive officer to General David Petraeus when he led American troops in Iraq and helped edit the Army's counterinsurgency manual, said much of the strategy is based on lessons from history. The success of the technique often depends on the particulars of the situation, but he said the analogy to policing makes sense.

"We put police stations in our community to do what combat outposts do in an insurgency," Mansoor said. "That's to be among people, to get information from the people, to make them feel more secure, to put a police presence on the streets to tamp down potential violence, to get people to call in tips."

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.