Police and Thieves: Listen up, cops

A series of scandals and badly handled cases have left the Israel Police in serious need of intervention.

July 2, 2016 00:25
Roni Alsheic

Chief of Police Roni Alsheich visits the Western Wall in December 2015. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The first police scandal in my years covering crime at The Jerusalem Post was ripped straight from a movie – and in some ways may have been the worst one of all.

The “Avenging Cops,” as they became known, were four police officers from Nahariya who plotted a series of vigilante attacks on local mobsters, including affixing a pipe bomb to gangster Michael Mor’s car and throwing a grenade at his house.

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The cops said they were threatened repeatedly by gangsters in the northern city and had nowhere to turn, maybe earning them some sympathy from people who didn’t know that the grenade landed beneath the window of Mor’s children’s room.

In the seven years that followed in my tenure at the Post, I saw a procession of sex scandals involving senior police commanders, police brutality caught on tape, and a series of cases that were laughably mishandled in the media – the most painful of all probably being the June 2013 press conference in which police announced they’d solved the Bar Noar LGBT shooting, only to have to backtrack live on TV as a gag order was slapped on the arrest in real time.

Scandals will be inevitable in the next seven years as well, but by focusing on certain areas of enforcement, police could significantly improve their public image, or at least help make life easier for many citizens of this country.

A massive, nationwide police effort to battle firearms crime in the Arab sector with the support of local Arab leaders and the Arab parties in the Knesset could dramatically reduce the level of violence in Arab communities across the country that have been terrorized in recent years. While such efforts have been launched by police in the past, one with the right amount of resources and community support could actually improve the lives of countless Israeli citizens, and also help stave the flow of illegal firearms to the black market – and to the hands of would-be lone wolf and “wolf pack” attackers.

A zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment must be maintained in the coming years, as part of the long, difficult process of repairing the damage done by repeated sex scandals.

Last Wednesday, police announced that Dep.-Ch. Ilan Mor had turned down his appointment as Israel Police attaché in New York due to family reasons. But it should never have gotten that far, since Mor had already been the subject of a sexual harassment probe by the Justice Ministry, and was found guilty by a police disciplinary board of conduct unbecoming an officer.

It’s true that a single sexual harassment complaint against a top commander could overshadow all their good intentions; regardless, they have to take every step necessary to purge the organization of the culture that allowed such abuse to flourish.

For your average law-abiding citizen, personal encounters with the police are typically confined to getting a traffic ticket or issuing a complaint about a crime. For far too many law-abiding Israelis, encounters with police and the criminal justice system are also the result of arrests involving soft drugs.

Though first-time offenders typically don’t go to prison, a criminal case (and fines, probation and the like) can severely disrupt the life of the average citizen, and can have a ripple effect on the image of the police.

While police often send out press releases about industrial-sized marijuana-growing operations they busted, rarely does a week go by that some police spokesperson for some district or subdistrict sends a press release complete with photos of a drug bust involving a paltry amount of marijuana or a couple of sickly cannabis plants clinging to life in a pathetic operation set up in somebody’s closet.

The language used with the small-time busts sounds remarkably similar, and arguably gives the appearance that police are out of touch with changing public sentiments about “soft drugs” and going hard on easy prey, including everyday people who are for the most part law-abiding citizens.

There is no shortage of paid advisers making PowerPoint presentations and work-shopping ideas for how one of Israel’s largest public organizations could improve its image, including quite possibly those suggestions written above. One other thing I’ve learned the past seven years, though, is that the effect of such efforts will most likely be limited, no matter what police do.

When Insp.-Gen. Roni Alsheich said recently that the police “had become a punching bag,” there was something to that. Often when covering them, it seems like even when they try to do the right thing or take a victory lap – like with the Bar Noar press conference – the whole thing has a tendency to blow up in their faces. At other times, it seems like they can’t entirely get a fair shake in the media and they’re dealing with a public that already sees them as incompetent, corrupt and violent.

Take last week and the media storm surrounding the report that the police had prepared a file on Knesset members who have been suspected of crimes. On paper it could sound like a story about police building a dossier on elected officials to use against them when the time comes, or just like what it was – an effort by police to ensure they’d covered all their bases.

A few days earlier, there was the story about how Alsheich had told police officers at a ceremony last week that “the anti-fraud unit can bring down a government or build one up.” Nothing about that sentence is actually false – the anti-fraud unit deals with the country’s most sensitive investigations, the results of which can have wideranging repercussions.

The past seven years for the Israel Police have been riven with scandal, highly critical media coverage, and a public image that borders on collective ridicule. Along the way, though it garnered less coverage, the police have had repeated success fighting organized crime and have spent two wars and the better part of the past year on the front lines protecting the Israeli home front from stabbing attacks, rockets, and lone-wolf gunmen.

In the next seven years, scandals will most likely set the tone for the public image and media portrayal of the police, something that should only galvanize their efforts to provide better service to the public and rid their organization of the wrongdoing that has obscured the essential job they perform.

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