New Tel Aviv police chief entering the fray

Community outreach, fighting illegal firearms and cooperation of everyday citizens bring results,’ says incoming TA police chief Bentzi Sau.

June 5, 2013 03:14
NEW TEL AVIV police chief Bentzi Sau (right) with Insp.-Gen. Yohanan Danino.

TA Police Chief Sau and Danino 370. (photo credit: Ben Hartman)

Tensions between African migrants and local Israelis, policing mass protests and fighting the kiosk drug trade are only a few of the issues incoming Tel Aviv District Police chief Bentzi Sau will face, as he leaves his previous post at the Central District on Monday.

He will be replacing Commander Aharon Aksel, who will take over as the head of the police operations branch.

Sau said there is a lot of new ground to learn but that one of the major focuses of local police should be on the conflict between migrants and Israeli residents in south Tel Aviv and that it has the potential for serious violence to erupt.

“This is something that very much bothers me. First off it effects the level of crime... There is a very serious tension there and if a certain incident happens, it could ignite and lead to somewhere very dangerous.”

Sau added that “this is a problem that all levels of the system need to deal with,” and that police, the state and government in combination with legislation, policies and international law is the only way to make a difference.

Sau made his comments during an interview on his final day in his office at the Central District headquarters in Ramle where, other than two big cardboard boxes in the corner, it was hard to tell that the man who had captained the district for the past three years was about to be reassigned to Tel Aviv.

The migrant issue is one of a number that face Tel Aviv to a much greater extent than the Central District, where only a few thousand migrants reside compared to the tens of thousands that live in a high concentration, mainly populating the Tel Aviv’s southern neighborhoods.

Another difference will be the protests, both approved and illegal, which are a fact of life in the city. During the 2011 summer protests and following a series of protests in early 2012, police were heavily criticized for using what many said was excessive force.

When asked what he would have done differently, Sau gave a diplomatic answer, saying because he wasn’t there he couldn’t know what actually happened.

“I know what our guidelines are and they’re very clear – we are police in a democratic system and one of the basic rights is the freedom of expression and protest... The police allow this, but we must beware not to cross the thin line between democracy and anarchy. This requires the responsibility not only of police but also of protesters.”

In regards to recent police efforts against kiosks from selling synthetic cannabinoids and cheap amphetamines, Sau said that he had heard about the phenomenon mainly from the media. He said it’s another issue he’ll have to study, but that like the migrants issue, it’s one which requires the government and the courts to take part, not only police.

The Central District may not be the largest police district by size, but it covers a vast 1,258 square mile area. From the Alexander River in the north to Bnei Re’em junction in the south, and from the Green Line on the Eastern border to the sea shore of the Sharon and the Rishon Lezion area. The district is home to around 1.6 million residents living in 230 towns and 45 local authorities, including a number of towns like Lod, Netanya, and the Arab towns of the “Triangle” like Taiba and Tira, that have traditionally been synonymous with crime.

Comparably, the Tel Aviv District is Israel’s smallest by area by size, but the most densely-populated, with some 1.2 million residents.

Sitting in his office on Monday, Sau spoke about a number of major cases in the district under his tenure including the arrest last December of over a dozen members of the Abdel-Kader crime family, who for years had dominated the underworld in Taiba and beyond.

He referenced the ongoing police campaign against firearms in the district, especially in the Arab neighborhoods of Lod, Ramle, and the Triangle and cited the success of the hunt for and arrest of the serial bank robber “Motorcycle Bandit 2.”

The 54-year-old Sau served as an officer in the Border Police form 1977 to 2006, before joining the operations branch of the Public Security Ministry.

In May 2010 he was appointed the head of the Central District, where he remained until Monday morning.

Sau’s time in the force hasn’t been without controversy. From 1996 to 2001 he was the divisional brigade commander for the northern command of the Border Police, including during the October 2000 riots, when 13 Israeli Arabs were killed by security forces during protests at the beginning of the Second Intifada.

In 2003, the Orr Commission, founded to examine the conduct of Israeli security forces during the riots, determined that Sau went against police guidelines, when he sent his officers inside Umm al-Fahm to battle rioters. The commission also determined that while he did not give the unjustified order to use sniper fire against rioters, he was responsible for the shootings as commander of the Border Police in Wadi Ara on the first two days of the riots.

In June 2006, Sau was appointed to head the operational branch of the Public Security Ministry, but following a petition by the Israeli Arab rights organization Adallah, the high court determined that his promotion would violate the Orr Commission’s ruling that he not be promoted for four years.

Sau was then made the assistant to the head of the policing and security branch of the ministry, and later the head of the ministry’s operations branch, before being appointed head of the Central District in May 2010.

When looking back at the past three years in the Central District, Sau boasts about what he calls “a change in the trends in Lod, in Taiba [and] in Netanya,” adding that there has been a drop-off in organized and violent crimes. He cites police figures saying that while over the past 10 years the district has averaged 40 murders per year, in 2012 the number was 31 and so far in 2013, there have been only 12.

He said the number is still too high and that new problem areas have sprouted up. These include Rehovot, Rishon Lezion, and Petah Tikva, where crime gangs have been at war for the past few years, but that police tactics and policies have borne fruit in the district.

Sau also oversaw the implementation of a program in the district to identify women at risk of being murdered or harmed by relatives or spouses. It was launched three years ago and increases the extent to which police are involved before a crime is committed. Police credit the program for the fact that in 2012 there was not a single “honor killing” in the district, even though such killings had plagued towns like Ramle and Lod in years past.

Along the way, ongoing police efforts to fight illegal gun ownership and reach out to the Arab community have played a role in reducing the bloodshed in the district, Sau added.

“We can’t say that everything that succeeded here can be projected onto Tel Aviv, but we know that community outreach, fighting illegal firearms, and the cooperation of everyday citizens bring results.”

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