Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich hadn’t yet started his term when he already hit his first hurdle – the stairs outside his Givat Shmuel home.
Alsheich broke his leg that December morning six months ago, marking an inauspicious start to his term as head of one of the country’s most important institutions. Things have only gone downhill from there.
Alsheich was appointed as an outside nominee with a reportedly storied - but classified - career, during which he climbed the ranks of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to become its deputy director. He was presented to the public as a reformer who would clean up the police, bring a new era of professionalism and tactical expertise, and perhaps most importantly – repair the image of a force that has been beset by repeated scandals in recent years.
Though crime statistics for 2016 won’t be published until the end of the year, so far, when it comes to the public image test, the era of Alsheich has been an abject failure.
Alsheich was first put to the test on New Year’s Day, when Israeli-Arab terrorist Nashat Milhem gunned down three Israelis in the heart of Tel Aviv and vanished to the north. Milhem was found the next weekend in his home village – in a building where his family had once lived – and was killed in a gun battle by police.
What happened between the attack on Dizengoff Street and the gun battle in the village of Arara would set the tone for the police force under Alsheich, which has withdrawn from the public and embraced secrecy and dodging the press.
The first official police statement about the manhunt was 48 hours later, and Alsheich himself commented on the case only five days later. There was also the decision not to release a photo of the fugitive for 36 hours, and the failure to properly heed an emergency call placed by two women who saw him heading north to Wadi Ara just after the attack.
This whole affair was revisited in the press this week, when a police gag order banned publication of the picture or name of a man on the run after murdering his ex-girlfriend and her companion in Rishon Lezion. Like with Nashat Milhem, there was almost total silence from police until the man was caught and killed.
In both cases, the police have shown a dismissal for the press and public, something more suited to a secret police force like the Shin Bet which operates in the shadows and mainly polices a population – Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza – who are not citizens, and aren’t paying the tax dollars that fund it.
But perhaps the most glaring issue has been Alsheich’s handling of sexual harassment cases.
In recent years, the Israel Police has acquired a well-earned reputation as an organization with a culture of sexual harassment, of male commanders abusing and exploiting their power over female subordinates. During the term of Alsheich’s predecessor, Yohanan Danino, this played out with a series of sexual harassment complaints.
Late last December, Alsheich decided to allow Asst.-Ch. Roni Ritman to stay on as commander of the elite Lahav 433 investigative unit after he was cleared of wrongdoing by a Justice Ministry probe into sexual harassment allegations. Then attorney- general Yehuda Weinstein had recommended he not be allowed to return to the post, and the probe found that testimony given under caution by Yohanan Danino supported some of the allegations. Earlier this month, he appointed Commander Ilan Mor to be the Israel Police attaché in New York, even though he had been convicted in a police disciplinary court after confessing to sexually harassing two female subordinates. There is also a police intelligence commander who was allowed to stay in his position despite a sexual harassment indictment last year.
When it comes to public image though, those three cases pale in comparison to comments made by Alsheich at a closed police forum on International Women’s Day in March, in which he said police would no longer accept anonymous sexual harassment complaints, saying they were being used to “settle accounts” within the organization. He later clarified at a Knesset hearing that he was not referring to complaints of criminality, rather of disciplinary complaints within the organization, though he also said he encourages female police to use their full names when issuing complaints.
Forget about the fact that it’s the Justice Ministry – not police – which investigates wrongdoing by police officers. These are not the words of someone who understands the difficulties faced by women who chose to come forward and complain of sexual misconduct in a male-dominated organization. And even if – as he said – his words were taken out of context, they certainly did not help foster the image that as commissioner he is deeply committed to fighting sexual harassment, or that police are doing whatever it takes to change the culture that allowed such abuse to flourish.
And while it may not be as high-profile as police treatment of sexual harassment, police handling of the press under Alsheich has gone from bad to worse. This reached a new low on Sunday morning, when police sent out a message saying they had finished the investigation of the Prime Minister’s Residence, without mentioning whether or not they found evidence to recommend an indictment, or the names of the suspects – including that of Sara Netanyahu.
This was unprecedented, and has given the impression that the police is treating her with kid gloves, giving her the privilege of anonymity that wouldn’t be given to private citizens or public officials. This double standard – whether it was ordered by people far above Alsheich’s pay grade or not – sends a troubling message to the public and represents another step back in the repairing of the image of the Israel Police.
Under Alsheich, it doesn’t appear the police see the media as a conduit to inform the public about issues of importance to their daily lives (such as a possible indictment against the prime minister’s wife), and see the press as largely a nuisance, something that hinders their ability to work in the shadows without oversight.
On Tuesday, MK Nachman Shai (Zionist Union) called for an urgent meeting of the Knesset Environment and Interior Committee to examine how police have “failed the public’s faith in them.” Shai mentioned the vague statement police issued about Sara Netanyahu, their handling of the fugitive from Rishon Lezion, both cases in which Shai said, “The information released was wrong and misleading. Public faith in the police is a public asset of great value. Irresponsible police statements and vacillations deal it a mortal blow.”
Mortal blow may be a bit of an exaggeration, but if Alsheich believes police “have become a punching bag” – as he said earlier this month – he needs to look closely at how his actions have set back efforts to repair the image of police and to earn them much of the contempt felt by the public as of late.