SLO’s police chief brings back Israeli lessons on suicide bombers, rioters
October 14, 2014
By KAREN VELIE and DANIEL BLACKBURN
San Luis Obispo Police Chief Steve Gesell spent a week in Israel learning how its police agencies deal with suicide bombers and attacks by militants armed with automatic weapons. The program, sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, provides American police officials with training in Israeli police tactics that includes having police wear body armor and carry automatic weapons as they patrol the streets.
Multiple law enforcement heads, including Gesell and San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson, have traveled to Israel, on excursions sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), to learn Israel police techniques for crowd control, combating terrorism and media relations.
But Israel police are often accused of violating the civil rights of minorities through illegal arrests and unequal enforcement of laws that differ depending on race, religion and sex. A number of American law enforcement leaders have been accused of implementing aggressive military tactics against American civilians after attending the ADL-sponsored courses in Israel.
The former police chief of Ferguson, Missouri, who retired before the shooting of Michael Brown, attended the Israeli program. The Ferguson police department used armored vehicles, sniper rifles and automatic weapons in its response to protest overs Brown’s killing. Reporters and commentators noted that the Ferguson police looked more like American military units deployed in Afghanistan than an American police department maintaining law and order.
Last week, a federal judge ruled that the Ferguson department’s tactics violated the civil rights of the protestors.
Both Gesell and Parkinson have purchased armored vehicles and assault rifles under a Department of Homeland Security program giving police agencies access to surplus military equipment. Included in the purchases were 50 bayonets for the San Luis Obispo Police Department and 25 bayonets for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department.
Earlier this year, Parkinson purchased a 27-foot boat for his department after receiving board approval for a $494,013 budget increase for the cost of the boat, extras and maintenance for the year. Parkinson said it would be used to prevent terrorism and to tow suspected drug smuggling boats abandoned on the Central California Coast. The Coast Guard provides towing services for those boats free of charge.
Gesell said the Israeli training would help him work with other agencies, deal with the possibility of riots in the city and defend against a terrorist attack on Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.
But Gesell would not comment about the likelihood of rioting in San Luis Obispo or how the city police department would have authority over Diablo Canyon. Instead, Gesell spoke about “inter-agency interfacing.”
“Any interface with agencies that deal with complex issues involving public safety is valuable to police administrators,” Gesell said in an email. “Lessons learned extend beyond the terrorist attacks the Israelis have learned to mitigate as exemplified by the tragic incidents that continue to occur in the United States in seeming unlikely places.”
Gesell has made multiple claims that no public moneys were used to fund the trip, discounting a request he made in August to have a portion of the travel expenses paid out of the police department’s training budget.
While the trip was to be paid for entirely by the ADL, Gesell had one of his sergeants purchase a plane ticket on Aug. 20 for a flight from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles International Airport, where Gesell was pre-ticketed for the flight to Israel.
The chief then submitted a written request to have the city pay the $379 charge out of the police department’s training account, which Assistant City Manager Michael Codron approved in August, noting it would “help the chief prepare for local incidents.”
While Gesell was still in Israel, CalCoastNews reporters began asking city officials about his journey. Gesell then contacted the Tribune, seeking an interview upon his planned Sept. 21 return. Upon his return, Gessel sent an email to his administrative assistant asking her to remind him to write a check repaying the city for his flight.
On Sept. 24, CalCoastNews made a request under the Public Records Act for all expenditures the chief charged the city of San Luis Obispo for his trip.
Two days later, Gesell informed City Manager Katie Lichtig that the Tribune would be running a story on his “counterterrorism excursion to Israel.”
“Should be a good piece with several very interesting photos,” Gesell said in his Sept. 26 email to Lichtig.
In the same email, Gesell informed Lichtig of the probability that questions would be asked about the trip. He reminded her that the trip was totally sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League with the exception of transportation to Los Angeles, which he said he planned to pay back.
“I am reimbursing the city to do everything I can to assuage any critics that may devalue the experience and knowledge gained in addition to having the rare opportunity to be an international ambassador for the city,” Gissel says in the email.
In the Sept. 26 Tribune story, reporter Matt Fountain describes Gesell’s excursion as a privately funded, all-expenses-paid trip to Israel for seminars on counterterrorism. Fountain said Gesell told him “not a dime of taxpayers’ money went into the trip.”
“While Gesell’s flight, hotel and meals were paid for by the ADL, he said he personally paid the cost of gas to drive from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles International Airport,” Fountain wrote in his article.
Gesell was asked by CalCoastNews to confirm that he drove to Los Angeles and that no public funds were used, as reported by the Tribune. Gesell said the Tribune article included faulty statements.
“The Tribune article contained erroneous info that I paid for fuel to LAX,” Gesell said in an Oct. 3 email to CalCoastNews. “Our agency and the city as a whole prides itself on transparency which is why you are included in our media distribution list despite your repeated propensity to ignore facts in the pursuit of sensationalism.”
When asked about the discrepancy, Fountain said Gesell told him he had paid for his own gas to Los Angeles and that Gesell did not ask for a correction or retraction after the article was posted.
However, after discussing the issue with Tribune editors and Gesell, Fountain said he was unsure if Gesell said he purchased the gas to transport himself to Los Angeles Airport and that the Tribune would be publishing a correction.
A correction was subsequently added to the Tribune’s Sept. 26 online article:
“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,” the Tribune wrote over the weekend. “Gesell said Friday he is reimbursing the city $400.”
Over the past several years, local law enforcement agencies have attended public events in military garb and displaying military equipment.
In September, the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Department had its annual Family Day at the Ranch, an event where children 12 and under were provided free hot dogs as they interacted with local law enforcement officers.
At one booth, officers in heavy military attire were standing shoulder to shoulder behind a computer showing a military style police action with the song “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor,” playing loudly. V. Rapone, a local parent who attended the event with a young child, said he complained about the music, and was told by a sheriff department official that the song was not “abhorrent.”
However, Tony Cipolla, the sheriff’s department spokesperson, said the music was turned off after receiving complaints.
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