Mesa Police Chief George Gascón spent the past week in Yemen as part of a United Nations program to train the Middle East nation’s police force in modern law enforcement techniques.
Gascón said he was the only United States law enforcement officer to participate in the seven-week program. He was there for the second week of the course and was on his way back to Arizona Thursday.
“I was asked to do it and I felt like I could make a difference,” he told the Tribune in phone interview during a layover at an airport in Washington D.C. “We have a substantial national interest in the region.”
The poor Middle Eastern country of roughly 20 million people was the site of the 2000 bombing of the U.S. naval ship, USS Cole. The attack, linked to Al-Qaeda, killed 17 American soldiers and injured dozens more.
It was considered by some observers to be a precursor to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C.
Gascón said the training effort was a first step in bringing modern police techniques to the developing nation.
“This is really the beginning of a dialogue,” he said. “You’re talking about a shifting of the national police.”
Gascón’s time away from Mesa wasn’t publicized by the Mesa Police Department. Security concerns surrounding the chief’s trip led local officials to keep a lid on it until his return from Yemen, a Middle East hot-spot bordering Saudi Arabia and near war-torn Afghanistan.
Gascón was part of a program for international law enforcement officials to help sharpen the skills of the developing country’s police force.
One of the focuses was community policing, in a country where a weak government gives way to autonomous tribal areas where crimes often go unreported, he said.
“It’s lacking in many areas,” Gascón said. “Law enforcement is not done uniformly throughout the nation. The area is significantly influenced by elders and a tribal structure. There are crimes that are not reported to police.”
The program Gascón was participating in was part of a United Nations effort in the Yemen capital city of Sana’a. The UN program is linked to the British government, he said.