Former Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan and his contingent didn’t notice the curious crowd gathering as they stood at a checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron a few weeks ago. The visitors were quickly flanked by machine gun-toting soldiers and police officers from Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
There was good reason for the commotion. Dolan and several other U.S. police chiefs were traveling with top Middle Eastern law enforcement officials who had never set foot together in the same country. For the past year and a half, the heads of the Israeli, Palestinian Authority and Jordanian police agencies met privately in unprecedented strategy sessions to discuss everything from crowd control to reducing highway fatalities. But not politics.
After the first meeting along the Dead Sea in Jordan, Israeli Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino said, “We made history here.”
Dolan, who retired last December, was still police chief when he was tapped for the summit meetings by Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C. The two have known each other since the mid-1990s, when Wexler was hired to help Minneapolis deal with record numbers of homicides.
Wexler, who developed the idea for the meetings, has had a long-term interest in the Middle East and how sharing U.S. law enforcement officers’ expertise might jump-start a dialogue between police leaders in countries that don’t work in partnership.
Setting things in motion
The nation of Jordan needed to buy in and play a major role for the project to even get off the ground, Wexler said. He reached out to Terry Gainer, sergeant-at-arms of the U.S. Senate, who had become friendly with Jordan’s King Abdullah during the king’s visits to the U.S. Capitol.
During a casual conversation before an appointment, Gainer asked the king whether he would host a series of meetings on policing issues. After the king finished his business, he told Gainer he liked the idea, but it would be up to Wexler’s group to get the parties to participate.
So Wexler traveled to the region, where he lined up Danino, Jordanian Director General Hussein Al-Majali and Maj. Gen. Hazem Atallah of the Palestinian Civil Police.
He then asked Dolan, Gainer and the police chiefs from New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Las Vegas to join their Middle Eastern counterparts for three meetings focusing on crowd management, use of force, intercountry auto theft, forensics, narcotics and traffic fatalities. Politics weren’t on the agenda, but gentle political jabs were sometimes thrown, said Dolan.
“Officials on both sides realized that they had probably fought against each other when they served as commanders in the military,” he said. It was pretty cold in the room at the start of the first meeting, Gainer said. By the end of the day, the feeling was like “just talking to a police chief from another city,” he said. Afterward, they walked down the street side-by-side.
“It was unbelievable,” said Gainer.
To foster relationships and trust, small gestures were sometimes needed. During a meeting break, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey suggested that officials from the different regions sit next to each other instead of being separated at their own tables. The comfort level grew to the point that Atallah spoke at the graduation of Israeli police recruits, which would have been unheard of months earlier, Ramsey said.
“I know these leaders got praise and criticism,” he said. “There are probably some people in the U.S. who weren’t happy that we went over there.”
Common daily ground
Reducing fatalities on Road 60, which runs nearly the length of Israel, highlighted the potential value of future cooperation among the police departments. A crash scene might not receive attention for more than an hour, and the initial help would probably be an Israeli soldier with no experience in accident reconstruction, Dolan said. The Palestinian Authority said it had great statistical analysis on the fatality problem, and Danino talked about a new program that lowered deaths countrywide by 25 percent.
Dolan had already retired as chief when he attended the last two meetings, but Wexler said it was important to keep him at the table for continuity. Gainer called Dolan a steady leader and a quick study who provided expertise on the nuances of Middle Eastern culture and protocol.
Problem-solving often walked down criminal and cultural avenues, said Dolan. A presentation on domestic violence by a female officer from the Palestinian Authority discussed how some men believe they have a right to beat their wives. But police are working for change, getting the women to halfway houses and working with relatives to get them out of dangerous relationships, Dolan said.
When the officials went public about their meetings at a news conference Aug. 21, there was nervousness about how their regions would react to a ground-level effort that’s working, said Dolan. Jordanian and Palestinian Authority leaders told the group that strategies on crowd control they learned in earlier meetings allowed them to use nonviolent tactics to handle their versions of the Arab Spring, he said.
“This experience is up there with the most rewarding things in my career,” Dolan said. The group intends to meet again in six months.
The summit created new law enforcement partnerships not only in the Middle East, but with the American police chiefs as well. During the bombing at the Boston Marathon in April, the police officials from the three regions each called Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis to offer support.
“It really struck me during all the turmoil,” Davis said. “It gives you hope for the future, no matter what side of the issues you come down on.”