Correction: An earlier version of this story erred in describing Steve Gesell's travel from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles. Gesell flew from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles International Airport and initially paid for the flight with a city credit card when staff booked his ticket. He said Friday he is reimbursing the city $400.
In the past year, two of San Luis Obispo County’s top lawmen have taken privately funded, all-expenses-paid trips to Israel for weeklong seminars on counterterrorism.
San Luis Obispo police Chief Steve Gesell returned from his trip Monday. County Sheriff Ian Parkinson attended the seminar last year in October.
The forums — which are sponsored and paid for by the Anti-Defamation League — consist of classroom seminars and guided tours hosted by high-ranking officials with the Israel Defense Forces.
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“I’ve been to many counterterrorism seminars — many — and this one, there’s none like it,” Gesell said. “It’s like a rolling classroom in a country which has been impacted by terrorism like no other in the world.”
Gesell was offered the chance to participate in the trip by the ADL because of his role on the board of directors of the California Police Chiefs Association. He said there were 12 other law enforcement executives in his group, including police chiefs from Southern California, Arizona and Nevada.
Given the recent renewed turmoil between Israel and the Palestinian organization Hamas in Gaza — dubbed the “50-Day War” by national media — Gesell said he didn’t even know whether the trip was going to happen.
Once there, the group participated in seven days of classroom seminars on counterterrorism and intelligence-sharing strategies, a briefing on the Homefront Command and the Iron Dome missile defense system, and tours of the Ben Gurion Airport, Bethlehem, the Holocaust Memorial, several police stations, and border checkpoints and bunkers used to combat Lebanese drug runners in the Golan Heights.
The trip also included a meeting with officials of the Palestinian National Authority, including a regional Palestinian police chief.
“I asked him, ‘What’s your biggest challenge as chief?’ ” Gesell said. “And interestingly, it’s the same for him as it is for us: Resources and staffing levels. Of course, the Palestinians aren’t a recognized country and don’t have the resources the Israelis do.”
During a visit to Jerusalem, which is divided into Jewish, Catholic, Muslim and Armenian quarters and policed by Israelis, Gesell said he witnessed a model for how law enforcement can use positive relations to keep the peace.
“It’s community policing to the extreme,” Gesell said. “The police have to understand each group, and these groups hate each other. It’s very much about trying to resolve conflicts peacefully.”
A day after Gesell left the country, the Israeli military shot down a Syrian fighter jet over the same area in the Golan Heights that his group visited.
Parkinson said what he mainly took away from his experience was how “incredibly tolerant and respectful they are of other nationalities and religions in light of the fact that they live with the risk of attack at any given time.”
As an example, Parkinson said his group visited a checkpoint where Israeli soldiers respected Muslim drivers by not bringing bomb-sniffing dogs alongside the vehicles, which would be religiously offensive, instead using a device that allowed the dogs to inspect the cars from a distance.
“That was not something I expected,” Parkinson said. “If they can be tolerant like that and still provide this level of security, certainly we can here in the U.S.”
Parkinson added that he was impressed by the Israelis’ communications systems, namely how they deal with media in order to get messages and alerts out quickly. He said the idea for an upcoming project to modify a room at the Sheriff’s Office administration building to allow interviews with the media to be conducted remotely was born out of the seminar.
Neither Parkinson nor Gesell said they knew how much the trips cost the ADL, but they stressed that not a dime of taxpayer money went into their trips. While Gesell's flight to and from Israel, hotel and meals were paid for by the ADL, he is reimbursing the city the roughly $400 it cost to fly from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles International Airport, he said.
The director for the Western region of the ADL, Tammy Gillies, who Gesell said organized the recent trip, did not respond to requests for more information, including how much the trips cost and their purpose.
Value of training
Given the recent national dialogue over perceived militarization of local police agencies since the demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., Gesell said the tactical perspective he gained is invaluable for him, as the San Luis Obispo Police Department is the lead agency in the county’s Regional SWAT Team.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn from the best,” Gesell said.
Asked about how the trip may be perceived politically in San Luis Obispo, Gesell said it in no way represents any city endorsement of the Israeli military.
“It’s critical to point out that the ADL in no way asked any of us to share any political perspective.
“They didn’t try to slant things one way or another,” Gesell said. “It’s ADL’s attempt to broaden your perspective without telling you what to think.”
He added that the local potential for riots, the need for better communication among public safety agencies and even the risk of a terrorist attack on Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant were all areas that could benefit from guidance shared by the Israeli government.
Gesell is preparing a presentation on what he learned during the trip, which he plans to offer to law enforcement and other interested parties.
“The threats of terrorism should not only be on the minds of law enforcement, but all Americans,” Gesell said.