Homeland security

A lot has changed in the United States in the decade since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Airport security screenings are more thorough. Government surveillance is more commonplace. People tend to be more suspicious of one another.

Some things have changed in Israel, too, but not necessarily because of the 9/11 attacks.

Israelis have been on the front lines of terrorism for decades. And if the past is, indeed, an indicator of the future, they will continue to live amid the immediate threat of violence.

In March, Chief Inspector Joseph Sullivan of the Philadelphia Police Department lived under the same threat for 10 days during a trip to Israel. Opportunities for sightseeing had nothing to with his journey.

Rather, his was a pilgrimage to a nation rife with knowledge about how anti-establishment extremists operate. As commander of Philadelphia’s Homeland Security Bureau, Sullivan brought many lessons back to the City of Brotherly Love. Chief among them, perhaps, was the commitment among all facets of Israeli society to combating terror.

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“The thing we quickly learned is their system is based on volunteerism,” Sullivan recently told a Northeast Times reporter. “They live under a constant threat, but they refuse to allow that constant threat to affect their daily lives.”

“Affect” should be interpreted as a relative concept.

That is, in the United States, mandatory military service for young men may seem like a radical concept, but in Israel, it’s been the norm for generations.

Perhaps as a natural progression, paramilitary service — like on local police forces known as civil guards — is a volunteer activity in many areas there, Sullivan said. By and large, Israelis are well-drilled in first aid, too. Many carry beepers so they can respond to emergencies as they arise.

The Anti-Defamation League sponsored the trip, during which American authorities met with Israeli military specializing in counterterrorism. Sullivan and others on the trip also met with police officials, paramedics, airport security specialists, private security experts and leaders from the intelligence community.

In the last 10 years, the Philadelphia Police Department has developed its own collection of highly skilled specialty units, all operating beneath the Homeland Security umbrella. Sullivan, a 28-year police veteran, has been in charge of them for the last three years.

“We wouldn’t exist without 9/11,” the chief inspector said, “not in the way we do now. I’ve been an officer, a sergeant and a lieutenant in the SWAT unit, and we never had the capability and equipment that we do now.”

Bureaucratically speaking, SWAT is just one element of Philadelphia’s homeland security. Other branches within the bureau include bomb disposal (bomb squad), the airport unit, civil affairs and dignitary protection. All have their own dedicated manpower and command setups.

As a security precaution, the police department does not disclose publicly how many officers are assigned to individual units.

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Not to be confused with the Homeland Security Bureau, the homeland security unit is the administrative branch of the bureau and includes Sullivan and his staff. The homeland security unit has three primary objectives: training, planning and intelligence gathering for the rest of the bureau and the entire police department.

On the training front, having various specialty units working under one command allows individual officers in each unit the opportunity to learn skills directly from one another.

“We focus on cross-training,” Sullivan said.

For example, officers in SWAT may learn certain explosive-handling principles, hostage-negotiation methods and first aid, to name a few. Meanwhile, bomb-disposal officers may learn high-risk rescue tactics and arson investigation.

The knowledge-sharing isn’t limited to Philadelphia police. Officers may train with the fire department and federal agencies.

As a result, the process produces officers like Detective Joe Rovnan. As a member of Sullivan’s staff, Rovnan has been trained as a member of SWAT, as an EMT, in water rescue and in hazardous-material response. Perhaps most important, he is the department’s lead hostage negotiator.

Likewise, Detective Tim Brooks of bomb disposal is trained as a bomb technician, explosive investigator and arson investigator. He also is a sworn federal agent through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

As a side note, Brooks and Sullivan were among the earliest authorities to arrive at the scene of the fatal Ride the Ducks boat crash on the Delaware River last summer. Both were off duty at the time and happened to be in the neighborhood.

Brooks literally jumped into the murky river in an effort to rescue some of the 35 passengers and two crew members who were spilled into the water after a barge plowed into the stalled tourist boat.

“That’s the prototype,” Sullivan said of the officers in his specialty units. “It’s a mindset. It’s about professionalism, about high standards and doing the best they can do.”

Their duties stretch far beyond what the public might perceive as counter-terrorism activities.

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If a suspicious package turns up at the airport, homeland security units will be called to the scene. The same is true when a fugitive barricades himself inside a house, when a forlorn husband takes his wife and kids hostage, or when a delusional employee goes on a shooting rampage at work.

When a Kraft Foods employee shot two co-workers to death at the company’s landmark Northeast bakery last September, Sullivan and his troops were there within minutes to relieve the local patrol officers who were first on the scene.

“We drove (the suspect) into a barricade situation, and we went from an aggressive approach to a defensive approach,” Sullivan said.

After word soon reached police that innocent employees were hiding inside the plant and in imminent danger, SWAT switched gears again, raiding the room where they had cornered the suspect. The alleged shooter surrendered without further injuries to herself or to co-workers.

“A lot of times, people think we just want to go in and get the guy, but the only time a situation is successful is when nobody gets hurt,” Sullivan said.

He easily rattles off countless other real-life scenarios in which his officers take the lead. When a suicidal alleged drug addict threatened to jump from an overpass onto Woodhaven Road a few months back, hostage negotiators talked him down while other officers pulled him to safety.

And when authorities discover a potentially explosive drug lab, the response includes SWAT, bomb disposal and the fire department, along with drug enforcement.

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Philadelphia is fortunate not to have experienced a major terrorist attack. Perhaps that’s largely a result of status. New York and Washington are more likely priorities for those seeking to make an international statement.

But the Quaker City does have its potential targets, such as Independence Hall, the Federal Reserve Bank and highly populated areas typical of a city its size.

And not all terrorism is international or affiliated with an organized group.

Any locale can be vulnerable to a “lone wolf”-style attack, in which an individual plans and executes violence. It may involve an independent religious extremist, a racial supremacist or a single-issue political activist.

Access to extremist propaganda is greater than ever due to the World Wide Web, as are step-by-step instructions on how to build very dangerous devices.

“The Internet is a game-changer, and that’s something we can’t shut down,” Sullivan said. “That’s why we see the lone-wolf offender as the biggest threat right now.”

Other times, the conflict may involve a domestic organization. Sullivan thinks the modern-day approach could have made a big difference in the city’s two disastrous confrontations with the radical organization MOVE in 1978 and 1985.

“We consider intelligence and information-sharing our most important tool,” the chief inspector said.

“MOVE is an example of how intelligence was not disseminated early on in (their) building becoming so fortified. (Neighbors) reported everything, but (information) did not get out to the units that needed it.”

Today, the homeland security unit is a clearinghouse for information on potential threats, whether the reports come from overseas operatives, the federal government, other jurisdictions or the general public.

Sullivan has “top secret” clearance to work with the FBI. George Venizelos, the federal agency’s special agent in charge in Philadelphia, has been very receptive to cooperation, according to the police commander.

“The idea of someone like me having that top-level clearance didn’t exist before 9/11,” he said. ••

Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or bkenny@bsmphilly.com