Police Affairs: Brass Talks

July 27, 2009 11:31

With low pay, long hours and unusual exposure to physical danger, a police officer's job is never easy. The work-related stress can be compounded when officers feud among themselves, especially when low- to mid-ranking officers striving for a promotion feel hard-done by their commanders.

There is one place these officers can turn to: the Israel Ombudsman for Police and Prisons Service Personnel, an institution tasked with investigating complaints filed by police officers against other officers.

Sitting in a spacious and well-lit office filled with law books, Cmdr. (ret.) Hanna Keller passionately discusses her role as head of the institution. The caring outlook she exudes makes it is easy to see why police officers coming in from the harsh world of internal police politics might be able open up to her.

Born just after the founding of the state, Keller, an Orthodox Jew, was raised on a kibbutz and grew up in a staunchly patriotic home. "We weren't allowed to criticize the state," she recalls, smiling.

Keller began her career as a Jerusalem district state prosecutor. In 1973, she joined the police as a legal assistant, a move she says "puzzled my parents a little bit."

By law, anyone employed by the police must formally join the force, and Keller was given a rank and a uniform.

"I fell in love with the police," she says.

Working her way up the ranks over the course of two decades, Keller was eventually appointed the force's deputy legal adviser.

In 1994, she left the police and returned to civilian life, becoming senior legal adviser at the Public Security Ministry, which oversees the Israel Police.

She worked under former Public Security Minister Moshe Shahal. "At

first, I was apprehensive about working with politicians," Keller admits. "But working with Shahal was an intellectual challenge. He was a jurist who worked extremely hard, and demanded that others work hard, too. And I loved it."

In 2005, Keller was appointed head of the Ombudsman's office, a civilian body housed in the Public Security Ministry. Her office is situated across the street from police headquarters - in the Public Security Ministry building - in Jerusalem. The physical distance between her and the police whose complaints she deals with every day is symbolic of her mission - to be separate, on the one hand, and close enough, on the other.

Yet, as close as she may be, both literally and figuratively, Keller is not always able to prevent officers who utilize their right to file complaints finding themselves at the receiving end of vendettas by their superiors.

"Bad people skills will lead to difficult relations between commanders and their subordinates," Keller says. "Sometimes, when we conclude that a superior was wrong, he will wait to get back at the complaining officer."

The forms such revenge takes are as varied as the individual cases. In one instance, an officer called to task for being in breach of professional guidelines responded by transferring the policeman who complained to a post very far from his home. The High Court was brought into the dispute and backed Keller's decision.

Keller also recounts the story of a complaint her office received from an "excellent female officer," married to a former police prosecutor. The couple had relocated to another city when the husband received a promotion. A few years later, the husband was up for promotion again, but didn't get it. In response, he quit in anger, and opened his own law firm to represent criminals. Since he was no longer on the force, his commanding officer targeted his wife - insisting that she was sharing sensitive police information with him - and transferred her to an office 200 kilometers from their home.

The woman filed a complaint with Keller, prompting an investigation.

"We found there was no conflict between the woman's role in the police and her husband's job. There was no basis to assume she was sharing information. She should not have been moved," Keller said.

KELLER'S OFFICE, though influential, lacks teeth, says Keller. The ombudsman can only make recommendations, not implement them. That is the job of the police, which, by law, has two months in which to carry them out. In the event that it fails to do so, it must provide a written explanation.

"I believe that if the law created this office, and gave us judicial powers of investigation," she says, "then the system, if it respects itself, must respect this institution."

Still, she is dodgier when asked whether Insp.-Gen. David Cohen views her office as a thorn in his side.

"He is very straightforward and professional," she responds. "He should see us as an organization that serves him and the system."

KELLER HAS made 20 recommendations this year so far. But she says that she always tries to first resolve any conflicts through mediation. This is why, she explains, "Most complaints don't end in recommendations."

"When angry officers come into my office," she says, "I first offer them a drink. I give them all the time in the world to get whatever is bothering them off their chests."

Ideally, she adds, the officers can reach an agreement among themselves by using her office as a mediator.

She is also keen to filter out what she claims are many baseless complaints she receives from disgruntled and embittered officers. "Officers will sometimes become convinced they were cheated or treated unfairly. But they can be made to see that they were not being objective, and that they were treated fairly. When this happens, it is satisfying," she says.

Keller's mediation skills have not always been utilized to settle police feuds. In the mid-1990s, she played a direct role in peace talks with the Palestinians, representing the Public Security Ministry during negotiations with PA officials over security arrangements and prisoner releases.

"It was a big honor. I was sure peace was here," she says wistfully. "But, unfortunately, there was no boss on the other side."

This, she says, is different from the experience she had when she participated in talks with Jordanian officials on police cooperation, where "there was someone clearly in charge."

HER CURRENT position puts her in somewhat of an ironic situation, since she helped draft legislation decades ago to disband the very institution she now heads.

"The ombudsman's office was started by three young police commanders with a legal background," she recounts. "They set up a professional guild, but the then-police inspector-general ordered it shut."

The officers petitioned against the decision to the High Court, which ruled that only new legislation could revoke their right to be members of the guild. And it was Keller who, as deputy police legal adviser, wrote up that legislation.

In 1980, a new law was passed, establishing the institution as an independent civilian watchdog.

"At that time, I couldn't have imagined I'd be where I am today," she concludes

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