Skinner: The response to that New Yorker profile, from my fellow beat cops and people in other agencies and departments, continues to be amazing. I perhaps have an odd view point, as a [former CIA] case officer having seen places where the badge means nothing while the gun means everything. Yet, now I still see such places, but instead of a failed state--whatever that means--it's a few houses in a block or two in an American city.
In my new life as a local cop in my hometown, I've spent the last year or so trying to apply whatever lessons I tried to learn as a CIA Operations Officer (OO, though usually still called a Case Officer) working in the Counterterrorism Center (CTC). Some of those lessons have proven immediately and consistently invaluable: embracing the truth that I don't know much about a scene I have been sent to; asking more questions than making statements; trying to understand the motivations of the people with whom I engage in times of tremendous stress; writing clear reports on what actually happened and not what I wanted to happen. The tools of the trade for a case officer are in many ways the tools of the trade for a local beat cop. Daily, I see how my time with CIA shapes my time with my police department.
I can only speak from my limited experience in trying to apply our counterterrorism strategy overseas as a case officer and now trying to apply our 'community policing' strategy in my hometown, and I don't have academic research to support my observations and my personal lessons learned. But I feel that we are trying to do the same thing in both instances with the same ill-fitting tactics, and we don't see this because we use such very different rhetoric when describing efforts at home and overseas. We attempt (meaning we plan, fund, and execute) campaigns overseas that we would never, ever try here at home. Yet, both are the same side of the coin, only looked at from different angles. If I had to sum it up in one sentence, I would say that in our overseas CT and COIN endeavors, we are constantly retrying the impossible at great cost and greater negative consequences. I think that for both local policing and overseas CT and COIN, it is only by examining challenges at a hyper-local level that progress can be achieved.
CTC: What prompted you to make such a big career change and join your local police department?
Skinner: After leaving the CIA, I returned to Savannah and worked as an analyst in the private sector examining counterterrorism and security issues. It was all important work, but I was writing about places I hadn't been to in a while. And it dawned on me that I had little sense what was happening in my hometown. We have a crime problem like most American cities, especially in the South. After working so long on issues affecting far-off places, I wanted to do something that made a difference in my local community.
CTC: How has your CIA training helped you as a beat cop?
Skinner: Let me give you just one example. It was emphasized during our training that one should try not to make a verbal mistake. Whatever you do, don't screw up by saying something wrong. If you don't know what to say, don't say anything. The Agency taught you [to] never disrespect somebody. Always be respectful at all times. Listen. Don't be rude. Don't be arrogant. And so I do that now as a beat cop in Savannah, with every single call. And it's paying off, so far anyway.
CTC: What parallels are there between your counterterrorism work and fighting crime?
Skinner: In some respects, it's exactly like terrorism. There are a handful of network-based people that commit most of the crimes in our city, and so I approach my work accordingly. It's almost counterinsurgency, even though this is my hometown. I will not disrespect anybody that's a criminal. If we did that in counterinsurgency [overseas], we probably wouldn't be having the problems we have.
CTC: Because it's about getting the local community on your side?
Skinner: Yeah, or at least not against you. With many criminals, they know their job is to break the law and your job is to catch them. When you make arrests, you don't have to gloat. Just put the handcuffs on them and talk to them about whatever they ate for dinner or whatever. I arrest a lot of people, and I see them a week later, or a month, it depends on the crime.
One of the things I learned at the CIA was the importance of area familiarization. But I've now moved past that and realized that I need to know area familiarization from the people who live there, and that's almost impossible to do as a tourist. The way we operate in a lot of places where we're doing COIN and CT operations, we're tourists at best. In fact, we're walking around with the word "outsider" written all over us. It's hard to do here because...