On mean streets of L.A., po­lice get Marines ready for Afghanistan

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Julie Wat­son

LOS AN­GE­LES — A tough-talk­ing, mus­cu­lar Los An­ge­les po­lice sergeant steadily rat­tled off tips to a young Ma­rine rid­ing shot­gun as they raced in a pa­trol car to a drug bust: Be aware of your sur­round­ings. Watch peo­ple’s body lan­guage. Build rap­port.

Ma­rine Lt. An­drew Abbott, 23, took it all in as he peered out at the graf­fiti-cov­ered build­ings, know­ing that the lessons he learned re­cently in one of the city’s tough­est neigh­bor­hoods could help him soon in the war against the Tal­iban in Afghanistan.

“Peo­ple are the cen­ter of grav­ity, and if you do ev­ery­thing you can to pro­tect them, then they’ll pro­tect you,” he said. “That’s some­thing true here and pretty much ev­ery­where.”

Abbott was among 70 Camp Pendle­ton Marines in a train­ing ex­er­cise that aims to adapt the in­ves­tiga­tive tech­niques the Los An­ge­les Po­lice Depart­ment has used for decades

Con­tin­ued from A against vi­o­lent street gangs to take on the Tal­iban more as a pow­er­ful drug-traf­fick­ing mob than an in­sur­gency.

The Marines hope that learn­ing to work like a cop on a beat will help them track the Tal­iban, build re­la­tion­ships with Afghans leery of for­eign troops and make them bet­ter teach­ers as they try to pro­fes­sion­al­ize an Afghan po­lice force be­set by cor­rup­tion.

The troops say they think they can learn valu­able lessons from the po­lice, who have made in­roads into com­muni- ties af­ter highly pub­li­cized abuses.

“Their role is to win the hearts and minds of the com­mu­nity, and that’s what they did,” said Ma­rine Staff Sgt. Bren­dan Flynn, who also works as a Los An­ge­les po­lice of­fi­cer and will be de­ployed to help train Afghan po­lice.

The week­long ex­er­cise in­volved Marines ob­serv­ing drugs busts and pros­ti­tu­tion ar­rests and even fol­low­ing a murder case. It was the largest group of Marines to work with the city’s of­fi­cers.

Abbott, of Long Is­land, N.Y., rode with Sgt. Arno Clair, a 16year vet­eran.

Dur­ing their af­ter­noon to­gether, po­lice hand­cuffed a bus driver mo­ments af­ter he was caught by an un­der­cover of­fi­cer with $25,000 worth of crack co­caine out­side an apart­ment com­plex in a south Los An­ge­les neigh­bor­hood long plagued by vi­o­lent gangs.

The tat­tooed sus­pect wear­ing an ear­ring and baggy shorts seemed a world away from the rag­tag, Kalash­nikov­tot­ing Tal­iban fight­ers, just as the streets of South Cen­tral are from the dusty vil­lages of mud-brick houses in Afghanistan.

But in many ways, po­lice in Los An­ge­les’ crime-rid­den neigh­bor­hoods use the same skills that Marines say could help them.

Marines are in charge of train­ing Afghanistan’s army and po­lice but of­ten have no po­lice ex­pe­ri­ence them­selves. Their suc­cess in build­ing ef­fec­tive po­lice forces is con­sid­ered key to sta­bi­liz­ing the coun­try and al­low­ing for­eign troops to with­draw.

Marines also are chang­ing their ap­proach, re­al­iz­ing that march­ing into towns to show force is alien­at­ing. In­stead, they are be­ing taught to fan out with in­ter­preters to strike up con­ver­sa­tions with truck driv­ers, money ex­chang­ers, cell phone sell­ers and oth­ers.

Build­ing rap­port can bring valu­able in­for­ma­tion that could alert troops about po­ten­tial attacks.

Afghanistan sup­plies 90 per­cent of the world’s opium, the main in­gre­di­ent of heroin, and is the lead­ing global sup­plier of hashish. Last year, opium seizures soared 924 per­cent be­cause of bet­ter co­op­er­a­tion be­tween Afghan and in­ter­na­tional forces.

In the end, the po­lice train­ing mis­sion is what will win the war, said Ma­rine 2nd Lt. Jared Siebe­naler, 24, of Hast­ings, Minn., who spent the past six months train­ing po­lice in Afghanistan. But he ac­knowl­edged that the po­lice mis­sion faces enor­mous chal­lenges.

Siebe­naler said many re­cruits tested pos­i­tive for drugs, ar­riv­ing to work high on hashish, if they came at all. Su­per­vi­sors were be­lieved to be skim­ming money off their of­fi­cers’ measly salaries. One force had men from two tribes who could barely stand each other.

And then there’s the lan­guage bar­rier be­tween Marines and the Afghan po­lice.

But like most po­lice work, get­ting past is­sues of trust and cul­tural dif­fer­ence be­gins with a brief en­counter on a street.

As Clair and Abbott cruised past a row of di­lap­i­dated homes, the po­lice sergeant told the Ma­rine to no­tice how a per­son’s walk and dress change from street to street and whether chil­dren are play­ing or hur­ry­ing by.

Crime here in­creases with sum­mer’s heat, he said, en­cour­ag­ing Abbott to iden­tify the vi­o­lence trig­ger in Afghanistan, such as at the end of the poppy har­vest.

“What’s hap­penin’, man?” Clair said, wav­ing his hand out his win­dow to a man who looked away in dis­gust.

“If they are on the fence about po­lice and they say ‘hi’ back, then at least we’ve dealt with that is­sue, and if they don’t, then at least I know who I’m deal­ing with around here,” he said.

Abbott, fol­low­ing Clair’s ex­am­ple, waved to a woman in the street. She waved back.

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