Designing Law Enforcement: Adaptive Strategies for the Complex Environment by John A. Bertetto

Crime Control Strategies

As law enforcement professionals, we often hold two things as fact. First, we acknowledge that the world in which we operate is ever changing and different than the one we were familiar with in the past. Second, when designing strategies to combat crime and criminal activity, we look into the past for strategies that have proven successful and re-implement them. That the contradictory nature of these two things is rarely recognized and even more rarely reconciled continues to be a source of mystery. However, by placing these two statements side by side, it should be clear that they stand in direct conflict with one another. If today’s operational environment is different than that of the past, how can any previously implemented strategy have any real hope of being successful? Crime and criminal organizations may be similar to those that came before them, but the players and their relationships with each other are different. This dramatically affects our existing framework for understanding these problems. Understanding this change in the operational environment is the first step toward designing new strategies that have the opportunity to be proven successful, but it is still not enough for operational success. The designing of successful law enforcement strategies must be an evolutionary process that occurs in real time in response to and, in the best of circumstances, before the evolutionary and adaptive environ-mental changes occurring at the same time. To design such strategies, law enforcement agencies must change the way they think, evaluate, understand, and implement enforcement strategies. They must use design thinking to create adaptive strategies that evolve in real time with the operational environment.

Proof, Logic, and the Environment

Before any adaptive strategies can be implemented, the nature and relationship between proof, logic, and the environment must be clearly understood. For law enforcement, proof is typically described through statistical data: percent increase or decrease in crime or enforcement activity. These statistics are the yard mark from which we measure operational success. It is important to understand that this form of proof comes at the conclusion of a process; it is its end state. Even proof of a purely philosophical nature must come at the conclusion of a logical process. The point to understand is that one cannot prove something beforehand.

Logic involves the cognitive process that allows for reliable inference. One thinks logically when a judgment that is made is based upon what has been known to happen in the past, is likely to happen again, and can be inferred to occur in the future. Reliability requires that conditions be constant, or fairly constant, so that outcomes of like processes remain the same.

The environment that we in law enforcement operate in is, of course, the real world. Our operational environment is that portion of the real world in which we seek to implement any strategy. The environment is an open and complex system. Complex systems, unlike merely complicated systems, are dependent in nature and based upon relationships. Complicated systems are composed of multiple, interacting components that can be broken apart into their respective pieces and examined independently. Aircraft and wristwatches are complicated systems. Complex systems rely on relationships, and the whole of the system turns upon changes in those relationships. When any relationship is affected, the whole of the system is affected. Complex systems all share the trait of emergence, which means they can change without any outside influence. Consider as an example the criminal street gang. The gang itself is a complex system, relying on relationships to function and exist. It shows the quality of emergence as internal gang conflicts result in the shifting of allegiances within the gang, and power struggles result in internal gang violence. It is also an open system in that it is affected by outside influence. Conflicts with other gangs and enforcement activities from law enforcement affect it as a system.

The relationship between proof, logic, and the environment has critical implications for the design of effective crime strategies. Given that the environment is a complex system and in a constant state of evolution and that prior strategies, no matter how successful, are based upon an understanding of relationships that likely no longer exist, it is not logical to think that a strategy proven successful in the past will prove successful today. Rather, those early strategies serve, at best, as a starting point for designing new strategies for today’s environment.

Design Thinking and Adaptive Campaigning

Design thinking and the concept of adaptive campaigning are not new. Roger Martin, the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, has written extensively on design thinking. In his book The Design of Business , Martin (2009) describes the idea of design thinking as that of using what we know to look to what might be, rather than what has been done before. Design thinking, then, is itself the practiced application of logic to strategy. Adaptive campaigning is a similar concept that has been used by the Australian military for some time (Australian Army, 2006, 2009b).In Adaptive Campaigning – Future Land Operating Concept, the Australian Army (2009a) indicated the key themes of adaptive campaigning as:

the influencing and shaping of perceptions, allegiances, and actions of populations through a persistent, pervasive, and proportionate response; the orchestration of a whole-of-government effort across five interdependent and mutually reinforcing conceptual lines of operation; warfare as a continuous meeting engagement and competitive learning environment requiring a flexible, agile, resilient, responsive and robust Land Force; [and] a command climate that challenges understanding and assumptions founded in the philosophy of “Mission Command.” (p. 1)

The goal of adaptive campaigning is to under-stand the complex environment and to design strategies specific and adaptive to diverse and diffuse threats. This is a theme that can be traced back still further to an article written by Marine Corps General Charles C. Krulak(1999). In “The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War,” General Krulak describes future battles as being complex in nature, in which operators “may be confronted by the entire spectrum of tactical challenges in the span of a few hours and within the space of three contiguous city blocks” (p. 4).
Design thinking and adaptive campaigning have also recently been included in the U.S.Army’s operational planning. In a very thorough and well-presented article, Brigadier General Wass de Czege (2009) describes both the need and the practice of design thinking in strategic planning. Referring to the kind of thinking needed to address complex missions as “operational art,” Wass de Czege states,“ Fundamentally, operational art requires balancing design and planning while remaining open to learning and adapting quickly to change. Design is not a new idea” (p. 2).Owing to the efforts of military thinkers, such as Wass de Czege, the latest version of the U.S.Army’s (2010) Field Manual 5-0: The Operations Process contains a chapter devoted to design thinking as part of the creation process of military strategies.

It should be clear from these documents that design thinking and adaptive strategies have real and demonstrable value in addressing the challenges encountered in today’s complex and evolving environment. Though the language is decidedly military, the operational applicability of design and adaptive campaigning to law enforcement is inherent.

Designing Adaptive Strategies

Understanding the complex system that is the operational environment is a daunting task. It requires a full set of data, involving all the criminal offenders and criminal organizations in a given operational environment and the relationships they have within that environment, with each other, and within their organizations. Law enforcement has been very good at “doing things right,” but at times it has struggled with “doing the right things.” The procedural nature of law enforcement operations—tactical applications such as street stops, warrant sweeps, search warrant execution, and enforcement actions—has refined the practice of “doing things right.”However, “doing the right things” involves receiving and recognizing relevant information and acting upon it. When designing adaptive strategies, “doing the right things” must delve still further. Law enforcement must also understand the causal relationships between the various operators in the environment and design strategies that exert direct influence upon these relationships in a manner intended to cause a specific or desired response.

The understanding and exertion of influence is the very heart of designing adaptive strategies. All strategies are designed to create a desired end state, but the adaptive strategy is designed to repeatedly exert influence on the causal and dependent relationships. Adaptive strategies have at their core a cycle of understanding the environment as it currently exists, designing strategies to affect relationships in the environment, influencing those relationships to change the environment in an intended manner, and evaluating the environ-mental response. As the environment changes with each cycle, the designers recognize the changes in real time and adapt the strategy in response. In this cyclic manner, the strategy itself is evolutionary, and the designers guide the environment to the desired end state.

Understanding, Predicting, and Preventing Adaptation

The first step in the design process is the assembling of a team of competent and creative individuals. Members should be chosen for their ability to think critically, recognize salient data and relationships, understand the complex nature of the studied system or systems, and to be creative. Once this team has been established, it is necessary to develop a complete understanding of the targeted system. This involves direct contact with the environment itself and the frontline officers who have day-to-day contact with the operators. Complex systems change often, and the design team must have a real-time understanding of the operational environment in order to develop an accurate framework. Design strategies will only be successful if they affect relevant relationships. Historical data serves a purpose in understanding context and may give an indication of possible future actions but should not be relied upon extensively.

The goal of an adaptive strategy is to affect causal relationships so as to disrupt, destabilize, and eventually dismantle a criminal organization. Unfortunately, most law enforcement strategies are reactive in nature: law enforcement agents recognize a trend, act to combat that trend, and change both strategy and tactics as new trends emerge. With design and adaptive strategies, there exists the opportunity to become proactive, combating a given criminal organization before it has a chance to establish any trend. Human beings are creatures of habituation. Patterns of behavior are often repeated, and this same habituation is prevalent in systems that are governed by humans. As the understanding of the operational environment and the criminal organizations within it grows, this type of habituation may be recognized and often predicted. To understand this most simply, consider the relationship between spouses. Years of cohabitation and interaction have created an understanding that allows one spouse to adequately predict the other’s reaction to an action or behavior. With this prediction, one spouse can determine the other’s likely response to any given course of action. This can, in some instances, be applied to select criminal organizations. Once a thorough understanding is achieved, law enforcement strategies can be created that not only affect targeted relationships but also have a predictable expectation of the criminal organization’s response. By anticipating the response, the designers can have the next evolution in their adaptive strategy prepared in advance. This type of logical inference accomplishes two things: first, it allows the agency to get “in front” of the criminal activity rather than always reacting to it, and second, it prevents the organization from ever fully adapting to the changes in the environment.

For these criminal organizations, which operate in a manner where habituation allows for prediction, the ability for the law enforcement agency to prevent adaptation will in short order dismantle that organization. The criminal organization will not be able to settle into any routine behavior but will always be in a reactive mode itself; the ground upon which it attempts to operate will be unstable. Without this stability, control of the organization and its ability to efficiently conduct its “business” will be lost.

Adaptive strategies have another critical benefit when used against criminal organizations like street gangs. In law enforcement operations where the senior leader or leaders of the street gang are removed, a power vacuum within the gang is created. Middle-tier gang members often increase acts of violence as they struggle both with each other for control over the criminal organization and with rival gangs who see a weakened organization. However, by focusing on relationships, individuals targeted using adaptive strategies are most often these middle-tier operators. Their removal from the operational environment via incarceration prevents the kind of power vacuum that is created when the senior leader or leaders of the gang are removed. Their removal from the organization also creates a “management” gap between senior gang leaders and street-level operators, resulting in further internal instability that can be exploited to collapse the gang.

The designed instability and collapse of a criminal organization can be difficult. Many street gangs can often be impossible to predict due to their fragmented and young leadership, which can lead to a form of constant instability. For these organizations, the designing of adaptive strategies may be most effective. The unpredictability of an institutionalized instability aids in the dismantling of the organization; chaos leads to inefficiency, both in criminal activity and the ability to conceal that criminal activity. By understanding the operational environment and the criminal organizations within it, and then designing adaptive strategies that target relationships, a constant pressure is created that will serve to disrupt, destabilize, and ultimately dismantle those organizations.

Command and Leadership

Most law enforcement agencies, being hierarchical in design, lend themselves easily to the implementation of adaptive strategies. The question is, at what level in the organization should command of the design team be inserted? Command must be high enough within the organization to allow for the holistic overview of all interagency assets and the authority to use them and to coordinate all agency efforts with whatever external law enforcement agencies, intergovernmental supporting agencies, and nongovernmental agencies are required. At the same time, command must have the ability to work directly with those agents engaged in the day-to-day interaction and enforcement efforts. For larger agencies, where regions inside their jurisdictions have operational environments and criminal organizations distinct from those in other regions, command should be separated into different efforts. For smaller agencies, command may be consolidated.

Command should also welcome a difference in opinion from members of their design team. Dissent is not negative so long as it serves to either increase the understanding of the operational environment or advance the understanding of the problem. If the environment is not thoroughly understood or the problem is not properly framed, the developed strategy will be limited in its success. Command should not see these types of questions as a threat to their authority but as the necessary part of the design process.


By using design thinking as the primary process for creating adaptive crime control strategies, law enforcement agencies will find themselves increasingly effective in disrupting criminal activity and reducing crime. Command staff members in charge of such strategic planning should assemble a group of critical and creative thinkers who can take the necessary time to understand the complex network of relationships in their operational environment and who can use this knowledge to design adaptive strategies that target those relationships. The endeavor requires a substantial time and resource commitment, but in doing so, agencies may eventually find themselves with a thorough enough understanding of the various criminal organizations within their operational environment that they can predict likely responses to enforcement actions and plan the next wave of enforcement actions in advance. By understanding the environment as it exists in real time and continuing the cycle of understanding, designing, influencing, and evaluating, designers can guide their target through a series of intended responses. When used against criminal organizations, such as street gangs, adaptive strategies target and exploit the relationships among middle-tier operators resulting in their incarceration and removal from the operational environment. Without these middle-tier operators, the ability for the criminal organization to effectively conduct its criminal affairs is lost, resulting in the disruption, destabilization, and dismantling of the organization in a way that prevents a power vacuum and the violence typically associated with it.


  • Australian Army. (2006). Adaptive campaigning. Canberra, Australia: Department of Defence.
  • Australian Army. (2009a). Adaptive campaigning – Future land operating concept. Vanguard, No. 4, 1. Canberra, Australia: Department of Defence.
  • Australian Army. (2009b). Army’s future land operating concept. Canberra, Australia: Department of Defence.
  • Krulak, C. C. (1999). The strategic corporal: Leadership in the three block war. Fort Meade, MD: Marine Corps Production Directorate.
  • Martin, R. (2009).The design of business: Why design thinking is the next competitive advantage. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Publishing.
  • U.S. Army. (2010) Field Manual 5-0: The operations process. Ft. Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army.
  • Wass de Czege, H. (2009). Systemic operational design: Learning and adapting to complex missions. Military Review, 89(1), 2-12.

John A. Bertetto is a sworn member of the Chicago Police Department. He is the author of “Counter-Gang Strategy: Adapted COIN in Policing Criminal Street Gangs,” “Coun¬tering Criminal Street Gangs: Lessons from the Counterinsurgent Battlespace,” and “Toward a Police Ethos: Defining Our Values as a Call to Action.” Officer Bertetto holds a Master of Science degree from Western Illinois University and a Master of Business Administration from St. Xavier University.