In the shadow of violent crime

Is the growing fear of violence justified or fueled by hysteria?

Thinkstock Israeli police 370 (photo credit: Thinkstock)
Thinkstock Israeli police 370
(photo credit: Thinkstock)
On a cold, grey, rainy winter day several months ago, I sat down with senior officers from Tel Aviv police and asked for a general appraisal of the crime situation in the Gush Dan metropolitan area.
“It’s quiet now. This is winter,” one officer told me, as the wind howled outside. “Wait until the summer.”
For years now, police have become accustomed to the idea of summertime crime surges. No known studies have been carried out in Israel to explain the phenomenon, but the reasons seem obvious enough.
On hot summer nights, more young people are out in the streets, many of them in a state of intoxication.
It’s clear that well-intended alcohol laws restricting the access of intoxicating beverages at night have done little to stem underage and public drinking.
According to a poll conducted by the Israel Anti-Drug Authority in 2009, some 19 percent of 11-yearold boys and 8% of 11-year-old girls said they drank alcohol at least once a week. Only Ukraine had higher levels of drinking among that age group.
The gap between groups of drunken youths and serious incidents of violence is small. If the fact that knife possession is on the rise – in the Tel Aviv police district, for example, there was a 50% increase in knife possession cases opened in 2011 – is thrown into the mix, all of the volatile factors are in place for a mushrooming of random and potentially lethal street violence.
According to Prof. Richard Isralowitz, who heads Ben-Gurion University’s Regional Alcohol and Drug Abuse Resources (RADAR) Center, “More young people drink alcohol than use other drugs or smoke tobacco, and underage drinking is costing Israel millions of shekels in losses stemming from violent behavior, criminal activity and traffic fatalities that threaten the well-being of Israel and its people.”
Nevertheless, few police reporters can recall a period in recent years as intense as the past two weeks. From the brutal stabbing to death of father-of-two Gadi Vichman in Beersheba by a youth because Vichman wanted to keep the noise down so he could put his child to sleep to the cold-blooded, coordinated homicide of 17-year-old Orgil Mauti by three youths in Rehovot (each attacker brandished his own knife and stabbed Mauti separately) to nightmarish rapes in the heart of Tel Aviv, the Israeli public has been inundated with stories of awful violent crime.
When severe crime waves wash over the country, the police’s stance is too nuanced to be effectively transmitted in an atmosphere of fear. The police’s response is therefore often dismissed by many as a stuttering reply by an ineffective force.
The truth, however, is not so simple. With its limited budget of under NIS 8 billion a year and its static officer-to-civilian ratio (despite the growing population), the Israel Police has prioritized its main goal as catching the murderers and rapists behind the incidents rather than preventing them from occurring.
Police brass do not believe they can flood the streets indefinitely with officers under the current limited budget and have therefore aimed to create a semblance of deterrence by bringing the perpetrators of serious violent crime to justice. To that end, it is impossible to deny police credit – in every major serious crime that has occurred in the country over the past two weeks, arrests of main suspects have quickly followed.
Those arrests do not make up for errors such as the embarrassing failure by a policewoman and a municipal inspector to arrive at the scene of noisy, drunken youths in Beersheba, despite being directed to the disturbance before Vichman’s murder, and then lying about having attended the scene by saying that “nothing unusual was found.”
Additionally, a look at the murder rate for this year shows an unmistakable drop in this most severe of offenses; Police recorded 50 homicides between January and May 2011, compared to 37 murders in the same period in 2012. This does not comfort the public, however. So who is right: the public or the figures? The unanimous reply from decision-makers in the domestic security sphere, including Police Insp.-Gen.
Yochanan Danino and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, is that the public is right. Personal security is first and foremost a feeling, they say, and if the feeling is lacking, the figures are irrelevant.
Aharonovitch articulated this approach during a walking tour of south Tel Aviv, when he said, “I don’t care about a drop in criminal acts. The public’s sense of security is number one.”
Security officials are acutely aware that if the public feels there is a problem, even if fear is fed through media reports that inflate every act of violent crime to the status of a national emergency, it means that ordinary people are responding to a real atmosphere of violence.
Domestic security decision-makers know that this problematic atmosphere is very real and is made possible by a relatively new culture of alcohol, knives and the readiness to enter into a fight over the most minor of causes.
The same can be said about the public’s reaction to crimes committed recently by African migrants, including the alleged rape of a young woman. The concern of ordinary citizens over the soaring number of African migrants in south Tel Aviv neighborhoods is not necessarily linked to a fear of violence, but rather is driven by the rapid transformation of established working class Israeli communities into predominantly African areas.
On the other hand, statements such as the one made by Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who argued that most of the migrants were involved in crime, are contradicted by the facts. A survey carried out by the Knesset last year found that crime rates among African migrants were in fact lower than those of the general population.
Once again, however, such figures do not mean that public concern is misplaced. When whole neighborhoods are transformed overnight and the government offers no answers, incidents such as rapes – even if they are relatively uncommon – will be enough to drive fears up even further.
In the meantime, senior police officers have been calling on the government for years to take steps to truly mitigate violent crime. These include a major increase in the police’s budget accompanied by investment in the spheres of education, social work and poor urban environments.
Otherwise, police brass warn, they will continue doing what they do best: Catching violent offenders after the attacks but not being able to prevent the crimes before they occur.