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Proximity Negates Skill – Why It’s Hard to Profile On The Fly

Last week I was able to take a few instructors from my team up to Los Angeles to do some instructor development with LAPD’s Gang Task Force.  Getting the opportunity to spend time with the officers who hunt down criminals every day is always a great experience because they live the profiling that we teach.  They don’t always use the same terms and may not have received the training that we provide, but when it comes to identifying the threats and the anomalies in their areas, they are second to none.

Every time we have collaborated with them, I have always come back learning something new.  This time was no different.  Last Friday I was reminded of how difficult profiling can be when the time is not taken to establish your baseline from an observation post (OP).   Being in an OP allows you to spend some time talking through the baseline and gaining an intuitive understanding of the area you are about to operate in.

The day before we went to LA, there was a shooting in the Hollenbeck District where we would be spending the day, and the gang unit’s task was to keep a strong presence on the street in order to prevent the retaliatory strikes that everyone expected.  This meant that we would have to forego the time talking through and observing the neighborhoods (with standoff), and get right down to the streets.  This meant that we would be establishing our baseline on the fly as we weaved through the projects and the side streets of gang controlled neighborhoods that we had never seen before.  As we passed groups of people, we had to try to observe them from a moving car window and make snap judgments as to them being a threat or not.  This was not a simple endeavor.

The officers we were with were doing this constantly, identifying people holding drugs and occasionally people holding weapons.  They are capable of this due solely to their understanding of their neighborhoods.  In addition to that, they have years of experience building their file folders for criminal behavior, allowing them to immediately recognize these actions for what they were.  Because they had that understanding, they were able to profile up close and personal, being able to focus in on the things they associated with threats and paint out all of the flak.

Because we didn’t have a detailed baseline to operate off of, our ability as newcomers into the area to profile and identify threats ourselves was greatly reduced.  It is just as we talk about proximity negating skill in the class: with the enemy’s required skill being lessened the closer he gets to us, our own skill to identify threats becomes decreased the closer we are to them.  The closer we are, the faster the pace of events occur to us, distracting us from detailed observation of our enemy and the increased likelihood we will waste time observing those who are not the true threats.

The point?  Leaders, your first few weeks into your new area of operations can be extremely challenging.  You and your Marines have a lot to learn about your villages when you first arrive in country.  I will never discount the importance of being as close as you can with the local villagers in your AO to learn about them, but time spent, especially early in the deployment, to establish OPs outside of town, and build the situational awareness of your Marines as they can conduct sustained observation with standoff, can be incredibly effective.  This will let them talk about everything they see and be able to observe and profile with greater time to make a decision.  While time consuming at the onset, the decreased time required to get your Marines comfortable with the baseline in your AO will be well worth it.  Remember, without the baseline, you can’t find the anomaly.

Questions or disagree?  Let me know.



  • chris

    After reading this blog, it reminds me a lot of the class that i just got from civilian profilers. I am in the army and going to Afghanistan in two months. I was just wondering if you were trained by them.

  • I can’t say what civilian instructors you had or what they taught. There have been numerous civilians involved with the Marine Corps’ program since its inception. Some were responsible for the initial development of combat profiling and we are very grateful for their efforts. We (the authors of this blog and website are certainly standing on the shoulders of others (but who doesn’t?). For some time now Marines have taken ownership of the program and provide the vast majority of instruction for the Marine Corps. We have also greatly improved and advanced the limited original material and have coordinated with numerous researchers (including laboratory scientists, government security agencies, and law enforcement agents) who have assisted us in deepening the concepts as well as validate and verify what we teach. We have also conducted significant independent research behind the concepts (such as heuristics, autonomic behaviors, signaling theory, agonistic behavior, etc.) and are working with various researchers to conduct actual studies of human behavior. In fact, you’ll most likely find that some of our concepts are quite different from what you learned. Please feel free to check out the website as it continues to develop and ask any more questions.

  • Also, if your are deploying soon, feel free to send us any questions or comments while you are deployed. Remember to read the rules of the blog. We don’t want any sensitive information shared here. However, we could always provide you with a more secure way to contact us when you’re in country. We are here for the operating forces and want to be a resource for you when your on the ground.

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