February 10, 2013

State police chief: Israel impressive

Col. Robert Williams praises the sharing of intelligence, the swift response to terrorist acts and the sense of mission.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Israel, which has been embroiled in conflicts with several of its neighbors since its creation, is a far cry from Maine, which has one of the lowest crime rates in the United States, but Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police, recently returned from a weeklong trip there to learn how their state-of-the-art anti-terrorism and policing techniques could be adapted here.

The trip may not yield any immediate changes in technique, strategy or hardware, Williams said, but the exposure provides valuable insight into different ways to approach complex policing problems.

"We won't be able to implement them in the true sense, but that doesn't mean we don't spin it off and do some things better," he said.

Maine paid for the $260 flight between Augusta and New York, but the remaining cost of the trip was funded by the Anti-Defamation League, a U.S. Jewish group that works against anti-Semitism and extremism. It is the largest nongovernmental provider of law enforcement training in the country, said Robert Trestan, the ADL's Eastern states civil rights counsel, who led the trip.

"When it comes to people putting their lives on the line fighting extremism, it's law enforcement," he said.

Trestan pointed out that even though Maine may not be in conflict with international neighbors, two of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center boarded planes that originated in Portland bound for New York. The tour also showed visitors the psychological impact of terrorism on civil society.

Williams, who had turned down previous invitations, said he opted to go this time after hearing about the experience from chiefs in other states.

Williams said the group of 15 arrived in Israel at 5 p.m. and had its first presentation at 5:30 p.m. After that, each day started at 6 a.m. and ended between 10 and 11 p.m. The group visited numerous police stations, border crossings, a large shopping mall and Tel Aviv's airport, and accompanied a marine patrol unit on the coast.

Williams said he was impressed by what he saw, although not envious.

The challenge for the police precinct responsible for Jerusalem's Old City, which encompasses holy sites for Christians, Muslims and Jews, is to defuse conflicts between worshippers of different faiths quickly and without escalation. As a result, officers move quickly to disperse opposing groups and seek to make arrests later, based on the network of 200 surveillance cameras, he said.

"They can pinpoint where you entered the city and everything you did while you were there," he said.

Bomb shelters are ubiquitous. At the shopping mall, the manager explained how during a recent missile alarm siren, many of the 8,000 people in the mall couldn't fit in the bunker, which holds only 5,000, but the missile ended up destroyed by the country's missile defense system. Shoppers then returned to the stores, he said.

Even shoppers' cars are tested. At the mall parking garage, air samples are taken and processed to ensure no bombs are present.

The group visited a border crossing that processes some of the 80,000 Palestinians who walk into Israel to work each day. They are scanned to ensure they do not have weapons and to check that their passport belongs to them, he said.

At a major crime scene, such as a suicide bombing, police will work to gather evidence and clean the area within four hours, while in the U.S., it could take days.

"They said, 'We get back to normal as quick as we can. The whole purpose of terrorists is keep you on edge,' " he said.

Despite all the advanced technology, police do not have laptop computers in their cruisers and typically distribute information through pagers, he said.

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