On The Beat: From crime to terror – and back again

The decade began with suicide bombings on an unprecedented scale and ended with the threat all but eliminated. But while the Israel Police is now shifting away from counterterror, the coming years look no less challenging.

police 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
police 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Police Insp.-Gen. David Cohen is fond of saying he prefers action to talk.

“My message to those who serve [in the force] is that we must work with business-like determination alongside humbleness,” he told reporters at the national police headquarters in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

Nevertheless, Cohen spoke at length that day, setting out his vision for the future of policing, while summing up the past year and decade.

Looking back over the decade, Cohen noted the murderous campaign of Palestinian suicide bombers which erupted in 2000 and reached its peak in 2002. The constant bomb attacks on city centers forced the police to place antiterror missions at the top of its agenda.

In recent years, however, suicide bomb terrorism has been snuffed out by the IDF, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the security fence, and police have undergone what Cohen described as “a blue revolution,” involving a massive redirection of resources away from counterterrorism missions and toward crime fighting.

“The redirection plan is multi-annual and it is being applied in line with the policies of the public security minister,” Cohen said. “An organization that carries out such a significant change... is an organization that is managed rather than one that is managing [itself]. This is an organization that is in touch with reality and adapts itself to changes.”

In the coming years, Cohen said, the biggest challenges facing the police will stem from an acute lack of government funding.

Cohen expressed concern over the decreasing officer-to-population ratio, which dropped from 3.39 police officers per 1,000 people in 2000 to 3.14 in 2009, blaming a failure by the government to increase the police budget.

Additionally, although many urban centers in the center of the country were witnessing rapid growth, there was no corresponding growth in the size of police stations or police resources, he noted.

THE ISRAEL Police has approximately 27,000 officers – though 8,000 of those are Border Police, and half of the Border Police is under IDF command in the West Bank. Many other Border Police officers are stationed in the Jerusalem area, forming a security corridor.

The recent removal of several checkpoints in the West Bank means that Border Police officers stationed in Jerusalem will form the first line of defense against potential terrorists in a much greater capacity than beforehand.

The police budget of around NIS 7.6 billion has remained largely constant over the past decade, with 75 percent of the funds going to paying salaries, 21% for purchasing resources and 4% left over for development. The budget leaves no money to raise the salaries of officers or to significantly increase the number of cadets.

Every new police station costs the police an average of NIS 70 million to NIS 80m. to construct.

Cohen also expressed concern over growing corruption and said most investigations into corruption came as a result of tips or complaints.

With so many municipal employees and city mayors under suspicion of breaching their public office, including the recent high-profile arrest of Bat Yam Mayor Shlomi Lahiani, Cohen said the police would have its work cut out for it in the coming years.

“We identified two main sources of public corruption – in local councils and in tenders. In the past three years, 160 cases were opened against senior elected officials,” he said.

Planning committees in local councils which grant or deny construction permits were especially prone to corruption, Cohen said.

Organized crime is closely linked to the problem of local government corruption, and Cohen said the force has in recent years allocated major resources in dismantling violent mob syndicates.

Despite the imprisonment of many mob bosses over the past two years, “we are seeing their positions being taken up by others, and this has led to an escalation,” Cohen said.

The police is employing both electronic monitoring technology and human intelligence sources to take down organized crime, but authorities remain highly secretive over both means, especially the eavesdropping methods, for fear of giving criminals too much information.

The public has often felt over the course of 2009 that it was in the midst of a surge in homicides. From the chilling slaughter of three generations of the Oshrenko family in Rishon Lezion to the brutal gun attack on a Tel Aviv gay youth center, the headlines of 2009 were marked by grizzly accounts of violent deaths.

Yet the number of murders was only slightly up from 2008, from 135 homicides compared to 128, according to police figures. During the briefing, Cohen stressed that Israel was in a relatively good position in comparison with other countries, with murder levels far below the US, but higher than those in the UK.

The Israel Police says it cannot prevent murders, but rather, it seeks to solve them quickly, thereby deterring future potential killers. To that end, it has invested heavily in the Central Units which operate in the police’s six districts and which are called upon to solve the most serious crimes.

According to police figures, violent crime has dropped by 11% from 2006 (55,275 recorded incidents) to 2009 (49,198 incidents).

Despite those seemingly encouraging figures, youth offenses were clearly on the rise over the past decade. In 2000, 745 minors were arrested for possession of a knife, compared with 1,931 in 2008.
Teenage drug use is also on the rise, from 3,189 cases in 2000 to 4,375 cases in 2009.

Police are also alarmed by the jumpin gun-related crimes within the Arab community, and have announced bigsteps for the coming year to tackle the issue.

“The year 2009 was filled withimpressive achievements, but at the same time, I expect that... 2010will be an even better year, with more achievements and the closing ofthe gap with the public’s expectation, especially regarding personalsafety,” Cohen said.