Stevens was one of 16 senior Georgia public safety officials taking part in the 22nd annual peer-to-peer exchange program organized by the Georgia Law Enforcement Exchange, according to a press release.
“I had worked in special operations, Homeland Security, been an instructor for security, you know, kind of do site assessments and doing evaluations on threat assessments for churches, synagogues, schools, businesses, just all kind of different things,” the 21-year law enforcement veteran said of how he became involved with the program.
Stevens was one of three SSPD personnel who applied to take part.
“It just so happened that this organization requested us for the first time at Sandy Springs if we wanted to participate,” he said. “So we had to write a paper why we would want to do it, why it would relate to our job; there were three of us and I got selected for it.”
GILEE advances public safety knowledge among practitioners with the goal of enhancing the capabilities of police and public safety to better deal with threats to safety and security in Georgia and communities around the globe, the press release states.
“… They take you to Israel and they show you the best practices and procedures for counterterrorism, how they deal with counterterrorism, gathering the intelligence, surveillance, how they deal with the security issues with the malls, with terrorism, with bombings, you know, just all kind of countermeasures for security,” Stevens said. “You go to military bases, to the border, right along the Syrian, Lebanese border.
“While we there … there were quite a few rocket attacks in the south of Israel, and then you had the three individuals who got kidnapped, if you didn’t hear about that. … There were a lot of operations going on while we were in the country, which kind of put us on edge a little bit.”
The knowledge gained through the exchange will carry over to Stevens’ daily experiences in Sandy Springs working as a special weapons and tactics team commander, training and recruiting and in homeland security.
“Basically it lets me relate better to what the practices are for security. Now, how do they deal with it — on a terrorism aspect — on a day-to-day basis? We don’t deal with that on a day-to-day basis. We plan for one major event where they plan for it daily,” he said. “We try to come back and talk with the synagogues and Jewish schools and businesses how to incorporate a daily security plan instead of just waiting for a single moment where it just blows all out of proportion.”
As a SWAT team member for 15 years, one of the most memorable moments came from an Israeli counterpart along the border with Lebanon.
“When I was on the Lebanese border, I met with a military group who did the border guard. I met a guy who had been a SWAT team member, their district SWAT team member,” Stevens said. “… I gave him my SWAT patch from my SWAT team; he actually took his off his uniform and gave it to me. He had had that for years and years and years. It was really cool.”
Law enforcement in Israel, Stevens said, “love American police.”
“… I think they are enthralled with the TV. The exchange program, they also send a delegation from Israel to here, and they do a lot of counternarcotics. We are not as in depth and in intel in terrorism as they are, and they are not as in depth in narcotics as we are,” he said. “… Wherever you go, a ringtone is always ‘Hawaii Five-O,’ SWAT team, some kind of ‘Cops’ theme. … We had a couple days we had to go in our regular uniform, and it felt like you are a rock star because everyone wants to come up to you and take pictures with an American police officer.”
Describing the experience as “surreal,” he said there also were moments of tension.
“ I think just being up on the Lebanese border was really surreal because here you are, Lebanon, Syria and here’s these big wars and they still have a lot of terrorism on the border. … While we were there, they bombed the border, so that was surreal. It was so beautiful, so lush and people were so great, but it’s so volatile,” Stevens said. “We went to the Temple of the Mount where the mosque is in Jerusalem, and as soon as you walk into the courtyard, you have a lot of Muslim subgroups in the courtyard. This is a very huge courtyard and is sacred by the Muslims and by Jews. As soon as you walk in, they just start chanting, ‘Allah Akbar.’ It really puts you on edge.
“Then, when the Jews come in, because it’s their sacred ground as well, it’s almost like this tension just builds up and you could cut it with a knife. It’s very, very tense. We were escorted by armed border police, IDF the whole time. There were a few moments where you were like, ‘Wow. I’m a little on edge here.’”
Since its founding, GILEE, a research unit of Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, has built a critical network of more than 1,200 law enforcement officials — more than half in Georgia — through more than 290 training exchanges in 32 states and 20 countries. According to the press release, more than 20,000 public and private leaders in law enforcement have attended GILEE’s special briefings, seminars and workshops.
Stevens said he believes those who attended came back changed.
“You see there’s such a delicate balance … You go there and you see that Israel ... is on the front and they know it. They know if they lose that a lot of the free world is done. They have such camaraderie and a spirit,” he said. “They’re all on one team. It’s very surreal when you talk to them because they’re all on the same boat. It’s all security. It’s all about taking care of Israel and taking care of their allies. There are no petty issues going on. I mean, you could have a brigadier general talking to a corporal and you think they’re the same rank. That’s the camaraderie, you know? It so volatile over there and it isn’t.
“... They want you to be comfortable, they want to treat you right, but you can tell, you know, if that part of the world were to just go up in flames, it’d be awful. … You just have newfound respect for their military and police because they deal with stuff on a daily basis it’s just unusual.”