When demonstrators in Springfield, Massachusetts marched to protest against heavy-handed law enforcement in the wake of George Floyd's death it was entirely peaceful. No rocks were thrown at the police, no cars were turned over and no one was arrested in the state's third largest city.
And he should know -- he can take at least some of the credit for reworking the entire relationship.
Massachusetts State Trooper Michael Cutone walks with local children on their way to a school bus stop in Springfield, Mass. (Michael Cutone/The Trinity Project)
Cutone split his time between the Army Guard and the police force, gathering decades of experience along the way. Eventually he started to see where lessons learned in his military career could apply to the toughest streets of Massachusetts.
"I was in the Guard, so when I got active duty orders, I would put on the green hat," Cutone says. "I'd be gone six months, a year, then I'd be back in my trooper uniform. It was two different worlds but I loved both of them."
Swapping between jobs kept him in touch with both the fundamentals of counterinsurgency overseas and the hard work of policing an area stateside. And it led him to wonder: what if he paired the best of both methods into a program for home?
In a time where calls to "defund the police" are growing louder, Cutone's method of police work is now getting more funding from state and federal lawmakers. It's called C3 Policing and it doesn't take the police out of the community, it puts the needs of a community first.
"Community members are your greatest resource," Cutone says. "In the Army, you don't survive that well if you're embedded in a hostile community, so you go win over the local population."
Michael Cutone and Tom O'Hare, one of The Trinity Project's C3 instructors, while deployed to Iraq with U.S. Army Special Forces in 2013. (Provided by Michael Cutone)
If Cutone's choice of words sounds familiar to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, that shouldn't be a surprise. "C3" means Counter Criminal Continuum and it's basically the application of the Army Special Forces' counterinsurgency tactics used in the Global War on Terror to violent crime and gang activity in American cities.
In 2009 the crime rate in Springfield was three times the rate in the State of Massachusetts as a whole.
"In the north end of the city, you hand open-air drug selling, gang members carrying SKS rifles out in the open and it culminated in three shooting and two murders in a week," Cutone says.
Cutone asked his State Police sergeant if he could do a dismounted patrol -- to walk around the streets 12th worst city in America in his State Trooper uniform. It was unheard of. Somehow, his sergeant agreed.
He began walking the streets, talking to people, buying a cup of coffee here, a pastry there. It dawned on Cutone that maybe law enforcement is approaching street crime in the wrong way. So he continued to walk the streets, engaging the population the way Army Special Forces taught him.
He went to community meetings to build legitimacy within the populace and eventually approached the city's deputy police chief with his background and ideas. When the chief agreed to hear him out, Cutone wrote up an entire action plan for a small community in the North end of the city, using the eight building blocks taught by the Army.
Among these were "work by, with and through the local population" and "Detect, degrade, disrupt and dismantle criminal activity" -- counterinsurgency maxims proven time and again overseas. Citizens began to meet police officers and interact with them. Eventually the local police force established a C3 Department and hand-picked C3 officers to begin to integrate themselves into the fabric of the community.
After retiring from both the Army and Massachusetts State Police in 2020, Cutone, with fellow State Trooper and Special Forces soldier Thomas Sarrouf, co-founded The Trinity Project, a police engagement consultancy and training company that trains officers in C3 Policing, using counterinsurgency to take back U.S. streets..
While "counterinsurgency" may bring to mind images of soldiers kicking in doors and raiding houses, Cutone said C3 is about building legitimacy through community partnerships using 8 core principles developed through the counterinsurgency techniques taught to American Special Forces:
- Legitimacy is crucial to achieving our goals
- You must understand the environment (the ground truth)
- Unity of effort is essential
- Intelligence drives operations
- Prepare for a long-term commitment
- Local factors are primary
- Security under the rule of law
- Gangs and drug dealers must be separated from their cause and support
"When you call the cops to come fix a problem, that's just a transactional relationship," Cutone says. "It's not transformative. We are starting with a message to counter the gang's message, offer services and create pressure points on these gangs to make it impossible to operate."
The end result is transformational. Since Cutone began his style of policing, the annual crime rate of Springfield has decreased 6% every year. While the city is still not quite the bastion of law and order, things are beginning to turn around.
Some of the proof is seen outside the raw data. For example, more outside investment is beginning to come into the area. Buildings are no longer left vacant, businesses are coming in and drug dealers are no longer active in the open. C3 operations are even expanding to the rest of the city.
Cutone and his staff at the Trinity Project are ready to bring community engagement through C3 Policing to any city ready to think outside the box.
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