SLO’s police chief brings back Israeli lessons on suicide bombers, rioters

October 14, 2014
Steve Gesell

Steve Gesell

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.slo police swatt

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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aft50s

What concerns me is how a perpetrator would react when an armored vehicle pulls up to a crime scene and outta the back pours a half dozen wannabe soldiers dressed in battle fatigues, complete with assault rifles w/ bayonets, and a couple of 50 cal. Barretts.


Is this the best response to a hostage situation or domestic dispute where the perpetrator has a gun(s)?


It seems like the situation could get out of hand in a hurry… I don’t know, but would be very interested in reading a study or two on what has been found elsewhere.


In addition, with all of the young men returning from the middle east, is seeing this going to trigger an “episode” or flashback that would further compound the already tenuous situation?


SamLouis

This is worth listening to sometime: Hearing on Militarization of Police Forces — http://www.c-span.org/video/?321337-1/hearing-militarization-police-forces


The waste by the federal government is phenomenal. Then local governments drag this stuff back home and spend a lot more money on maintenance, storage and training. The worst part is that is takes law enforcement officers away from doing actual police work while they train to be pseudo warriors.


toryrand

the police use your own money to extort more from you (non-violent revenue generating crimes, e.g. traffic, drug, ordinance, homeless etc) and oppress your rights when you don’t follow the mindless norm (protest, video record the police, ask for a search warrant, refuse id where no crime is suspected or committed, etc). SLOPD is particularly bad about this due to their exorbitant high salaries that need to be “maintained then increased”. Helps to have a monopoly on force.


tictac1

With a decades-long drop in crime, why do we need a more militarized PD? Seems like our departments do great with the equipment they already have, without making people feel like Iraqis.


I find it interesting that our local LE leaders will go to Israel to learn IDF-style tactics, but NOT go to a conference in Montana promoting the role of LEO in protecting our Constitutional rights, i.e. Oath Keepers.


It’s OK. So long as the slide into a police state is smooth and quiet, no one will ever notice.


SamLouis

Because driving around Downtown SLO like an occupying army is FAR EASIER than doing actual policing.


toryrand

i hear it pays well to….very very well…..a very perverse incentive and reward structure when you think about it….


SamLouis

I think that ludicrously high pay is also attracting the wrong sorts of people to the SLOPD. It’s attracting those that want $$$ without paying their dues. People that want to exercise power and not help/protect others.


hijinks

Thank you Cal Coast News for this “sensational” reporting! You are providing a real service in this town with its three happy face “news papers” that don’t print anything, even when it’s rubbed in their face.


As for Gesell, I find him a scary dude, completely inappropriate for Happy Town. My limited interactions have left me with the feeling he’s slick, but dangerous — like so many SLO city employees. Clearly, planning for riots and insurrections is not the mentality our city police should be practicing. This is just awful, and totally inexcusable. Automatic weapons, body armor, armored personnel carriers. What’s going on here, anyway? Taking hints on law enforcement from the oppressive Israeli police is another disgrace.


Our city council must approve, or he wouldn’t be doing this sort of stuff. How long till the Happy Town myth is recognized for the lie that it is?


toryrand

it really is one of the most corrupt towns in America, as evidenced by the whole system of government rewarding themselves handsomely for extorting their constituents on a daily basis under the guise of “providing services” or “protecting and serving”. must be nice.


hijinks

And, don’t forget, subsidizing developers and doing whatever the Chamber wants.


SamLouis

If one walks around LA’s Civic Center the LAPD officers look “normal” despite what they have to endure each and every day. Make no mistake there is a “no-BS” look to them, but they look like humans, they’re typically bright and they are approachable.


They look and act distinctly different than the SLOPD punks cruising SLO. No #1 haircuts, no $500.00 mirror-lensed sunglasses, no scowls on their faces, no jumbo-sized watches on their wrists, etc.


I suspect the difference in their looks is a direct reflection of the varying leadership between the two agencies.


SamLouis

I suspect this BS artist could have found similar or superior training within 500 miles of SLO…


agag1

Now what fun would that have been?


SamLouis

Besides, Sacramento or East LA are both too close to home…


SamLouis

What a load of bull manure! This was nothing more than a boondoggle — a resume-building, taxpayer $$$ wasting junket.


Jorge Estrada

I would prefered the training come from Switzerland due to their history of being a safe-haven. Maybe our “Neighborhood Watch” committee can find a taxpayer funded acronym that will send us there for a ski trip now that our federal agencies are too busy saving the world?


toryrand

Police used to serve and protect in this country…….things changed when the police unionized, started the war on drugs, and started recruiting from the military…..now you are 709x more likely to be killed by a policeman than a terrorist……SLOPD has a particularly CORRUPT recent history, think Cory Pierce and five other officers having been let go or arrested for egregious acts against the public). Those are just the officers who have been caught. Officers know they have a ton of power and trust within our system, and the bad ones find a very easy time of abusing the system. So I find it particularly interesting, that Stephen Gessell went to terrorist training, when if you think deeply about, leads a terrorist gang himself.


agag1

This sounds like a “boys and who has the bigger, better toys” issue, rather than being based on a legitimate need.

AG has a big fire truck, just in case some other city needs us to respond, we certainly don’t have any buildings tall enough to justify it’s purchase.

Every time I see it just driving around it makes we wonder how much $$$$ that little joyride is costing taxpayers.


SLOBIRD

But SLO has one and parks it at Madonna Plaza because there is not enough room for it at the stations (lol). So, every City now needs to get one!


SamLouis

Be careful. You might give the city the idea to build a 68,000 square foot fire truck hangar and firefighter commissary someplace downtown.


hijinks

And pay the rookies who polish the thing $100K per year.