Police departments in the United States of America know crime.
Though differences in methodologies make it hard to accurately rank it globally, the US is generally considered to have one of the highest violent crime rates among developed countries.
So for American police departments, fighting street crime has been their primary focus.
But terror attacks in Orlando, in San Bernardino, California, and on the Ohio State University’s campus have reinforced the need for local US police to know how to prevent and respond to terrorism as well.
In Israel, where terror attacks are a daily threat, the national police, as well as the country’s other security services, are world-renowned for their prowess in addressing that threat (though according to critics, this comes at the expense of non-terror-related crime-fighting).
To learn from that Israeli experience, police forces from across the United States send delegations to the Jewish state each year to meet with their Israeli counterparts, study their techniques and technology, and learn counter-terrorism techniques from both national security services and private security firms.
This month, the Anti-Defamation League brought a group of 14 law enforcement officials from across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to Israel for a week to do just that — free of charge.
They’ve visited Israel’s border crossings and toured the Ben Gurion International Airport to learn security techniques that could potentially applied in Boston’s Logan International Airport.
The officials are mostly police commissioners and high-ranking officers, but there are also FBI and Department of Homeland Security agents, a district attorney and the head of a police-training group.
Terror in Boston
For Boston, and Massachusetts in general, terrorism is not an abstract issue.
On April 15, 2013, two Chechen brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, detonated two bombs, fashioned out of pressure cookers, just before the finish line of the Boston marathon. Three people were killed in the blasts and hundreds were injured.
Now-Boston Police Commissioner William Evans was then a superintendent. A running enthusiast, he had just finished the marathon when news of the attack broke. He showered, put on his uniform and got to work, helping lead a massive manhunt to find the Tsarnaevs.
Three days into the search, the two brothers shot and killed officer Sean Collier of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Police Department. They fled to the Boston suburb of Watertown, where they soon entered into a gun battle with police, in which Tamerlan Tsarnaev died and 17 officers were injured. One officer later died as a result of his wounds.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was also wounded in the firefight, but managed to escape. He hid out on a boat belonging to a Watertown resident, before he was found by police, including Evans, who notes with no small amount of pride that he was the first officer on the boat.
In Peter Berg’s new film about the marathon bombing, “Patriot Day,” he will be played by James Colby, who’s far bulkier than the rail-thin Evans. (He’s run 51 marathons and says the Jerusalem marathon is now on his “bucket list.”)
“My focus was on violent crime, on young African-American men getting gunned down in the street,” Boston Police Department Commissioner William Evans told The Times of Israel during the trip.
But now, Evans said, combating terrorism has become one of three central pillars of his police force, alongside fighting street crime and doing community outreach.
For the Boston Police, the marathon bombing was a “watershed” event, changing not only the way the city holds the marathon, but putting the threat of terror attacks at the forefront of the department’s concerns.
To Evans, monitoring social media, like Israel does, is a “necessary evil” to prevent both gang crime and future attacks by “someone who has an evil plot, like the Boston bombing.”
However, he said, the police get pushed back on any attempt to expand their reach over Facebook and Twitter.
‘Everything we do with technology, people think we’re doing something sinister’
The letters ACLU — for American Civil Liberties Union, a group that fights such measures — came up in conversation frequently.
“Everything we do with technology, people think we’re doing something sinister,” he said, with a thick Boston accent.
But it was the speed with which Israel rebounded from terror attacks that impressed Evans.
After the Boston Marathon bombing, the area around the attack was shut down for over a week as investigators combed through the scene for evidence. Meanwhile, depending on the type of attack, the Israel Police can have the site of a terror attack reopened and allow traffic to resume “like it never happened” in hours, Evans said.
“It’s eight days as opposed to two hours,” he said.
Making everyone an expert
MIT Police Chief John DiFava has had two brushes with terror attacks.
After the attacks on September 11, when he was still with the head of the Massachusetts Sate Police, DiFava was sent to Logan International Airport to take control of the situation there.
His second was in the aftermath of the Boston bombing, when one of his officers, 27-year-old Sean Collier, was shot dead by the Tsarnaev brothers.
“The support we got from the community got us through that, and that support continues until today. That wasn’t just episodic,” he said.
Today, DiFava is always conscious that his university could potentially be the site of another attack, in light of its prestige and international recognition.
“If they — whoever they are — intended to make a higher educational institution a target, we would be at the top of the list,” he said.
Within the institute as well there is potential tension, as MIT has a large percentage of foreign students. “And a lot of them are from countries that aren’t necessarily friends of the United States per se,” DiFava said.
That threat, along with the increase in the number of domestic mass shootings, has demanded a change in the campus police, he said.
Unlike in the past, where local police were trained to set up a perimeter and wait for special units in the case of a shooting, now police understand that they cannot afford to wait and have to respond immediately.
But that requires police, including campus police officers, to be capable of handling such incidents.
“The tactics of dealing with an active shooter situation, changed from ‘put up a perimeter, wait for the experts’ to ‘make everyone an expert,’” DiFava said.
To do that, DiFava sends his recruits to the nearby Cambridge Police Department for training.
But now, having visited the Israel Police’s training center, where both uniformed police officers and external instructors train new recruits, he is considering taking a page out of Israel’s book.
“I think it’s excellent. We in the US are short-changing our recruits because we’re doing everything with sworn personnel,” he said.
“With all due respect, are they the best?”
Seeing something, saying something
The group met not only with the Israeli police officers, but also with representatives from the Palestinian police in Bethlehem.
Frederick Ryan, chief of police for the Boston suburb of Arlington, Massachusetts, was struck by the similarities between the groups — Americans, Israelis and Palestinians — but noted that the jurisdiction issues that the Bethlehem police face was eye-opening.
He too was envious of Israel’s abilities to monitor social media.
But he said he hoped to bring back with him the sense of awareness among the Israeli public to security risks and their willingness to report their suspicions to police.
That message of “if you see something, say something,” exists in Israel, and Ryan would like to “take that message and apply it to anti-crime measures,” he said.
But in addition to the exchange of tactics and techniques with Israelis and Palestinians, the trip also provided an opportunity for networking, both between the law enforcement agencies and with the ADL itself, according to the trip’s organizer Robert Trestan.
‘It’s not about politics, it’s about policing’
The ADL provides training to police and law enforcement agencies across the US, and as such, maintaining their relationships with those police departments is key, Trestan said.
Though some proponents of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement denounce these trips, Trestan said the focus of these trips is not Israel advocacy.
“It’s not about politics, it’s about policing,” he said.