Law and Order: A central commander

Police Central District chief Bentsi Sao talks about long nights away from home, battling organized crime and building bridges with the Arab community.

Police Central District chief Bentsi Sao 370 (photo credit: Yaakov Lappin)
Police Central District chief Bentsi Sao 370
(photo credit: Yaakov Lappin)
Most senior police officers go home to relax after a hard day’s work, but not Cmdr. Bentsi Sao, head of the police’s central district.
For several days out of each week, Sao, a 52-year-old married father of four, makes his bed at the central district’s headquarters in Ramle.
Otherwise, he has to wake up at 4 a.m. and drive 165 kilometers from his home in Kfar Vradim, in northern Israel, just to get to work on time. And that’s assuming his sleep is not disturbed by a major police incident that requires his attention.
“I see this [job] as a mission on behalf of the public,” he tells The Jerusalem Post in an interview in his office.
As he sits behind his desk, Sao’s eyes are filled with unmistakable determination. “First and foremost, I am here to serve the public,” he says.
Sao admits to getting complaints from his family and friends over the long absences. “I can’t succeed without the support of my family and social circle. My friends could have cut links with me by now, but they haven’t. They understand,” he adds.
Sao’s police district is literally in the heart of Israel.
Stretching from Netanya to Gedera, the district employs 3,000 officers who police cities such as Rishon Lezion, Lod, Rehovot and Petah Tikva, as well as Ben-Gurion Airport.
Many years before he was appointed district chief in 2010, Sao gained experience in the Border Police and the Judea and Samaria police district as a young officer.
He was then transferred to roles in the Jerusalem and northern districts before serving as a security attaché for the public security minister.
His last position was head of the Operations Branch. Sao has been in the police for 35 years, the majority of his life.
Today, Sao says, his district in the midst of a transformation.
“Traditionally, external threats to our security were always at the forefront,” he says. But the threat of terrorism has decreased and society has matured, he notes.
“Things are stable, and much safer. This has led to citizens demanding increased personal security for their homes and children. They are demanding more police services.” Personal security is no less important than protection against terrorism, he argues.
Yet, while the body responsible for mitigating outside threats – the military – has seen its budget soar to an all-time high of NIS 60 billion annually, the agency responsible for domestic security, the police, has seen its budget remain static, over the past four years, at a mere NIS 7.6b. The result has been a constant struggle with limited resources.
“If I had additional resources, the central district would be able to work better and more effectively,” Sao says.
“My challenge is to do more with the resources at my disposal.” This means on one hand an increase in arrests and deterrence for criminals, while creating a more service-oriented police district for the law-abiding citizens on the other.
To accomplish this, Sao has bolstered the district’s central units, which are tasked with tackling severe crimes including murder, attempted murder, illegal possession of firearms, narcotics smuggling and organized crime.
Alongside the central units, he created specialized investigation teams that are designed to tackle crime on a lower tier. “They handle crime that is lower in severity, but still problematic.”
This is the intermediate level,” Sao says. Many of the criminals involved in this level of crime could easily go on to become major mobsters if not stopped.
Additional units have been formed at 10 different police stations to fight local crime problems.
Asked how serious the threat of organized crime is to the country, Sao does not hesitate in his response: “We cannot underestimate them,” he warns.
“Organized criminals have the potential to harm state institutions and infiltrate centers of power. If we don’t stop them, they could infiltrate political forces on a national level. They could threaten the rule of law, the courts and the police.”
The good news, however, is that the majority of organized crime heads are either behind bars or on trial, Sao notes. These include notorious mobsters from the crime families of Abutbul, Shirazi and Abergil, as well as Ze’ev Rozenshtein.
"Our situation is excellent. If we look at the crime map, Israel has done well,” says Sao. But the organizations have not ceased to exist because their leaders are behind bars, despite the damage they sustained.
Vacuums are formed, and new, ambitious criminals are seeking to fill them, he adds.
On the public service front, Sao has placed veteran officers as phone operators who answer the police’s emergency 100 number. Subsequently, he says, more people are turning to the police. Recent surveys carried out by private companies point to an increase in the number of calls to the service – a rise Sao says is evidence of growing public faith.
“We’ve improved the time response to calls and the quality of the response,” he says.
The central police district encompasses Arab neighborhoods in Lod and Ramle and the Arab towns of Taiba, Tira and Kalansuwa. Many of these areas have been plagued by alarmingly high murder rates and firearms offenses.
According to the central district’s figures, in 2011, out of 38 homicides, 24 of them occurred in Arab areas. “This is a very high percentage,” Sao says.
On the bright side though, Sao says police are getting better at cracking the cases. While just one murder was solved in 2010, ten murders in the Arab community were solved in 2011, he says.
Additionally, arms raids have been stepped up and 250 firearms seized this past year.
Sao says he has identified a dramatic change in the attitude to police from the Arab-Israeli public. “They are calling for us to make our presence felt in Arab areas,” he said.
Dialogue with community notables and local officials have led to an increase in trust, and Arab leaders now view Sao as a bridge to the entire state. “I received requests to improve infrastructure, schools and the sewage system. I passed these on to the government,” he says.
“I’m very optimistic about our chances of success here, because I’m seeing big changes. A decade ago, the Arab community was not demanding our presence,” Sao adds.
At the end of each day, Sao forms a list in his mind of what goals were accomplished and what remains to be done. He admits to waking up “every morning with worries.”
"It’s a big sense of responsibility,” he says. “But I’m not complaining. I’m proud to have been chosen to command this district and its outstanding officers.”