Analyze This: The thin blue line between law and disorder

It's worrying when cops act like criminals to stop criminals.

"Here's how you get Capone: he pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That's the Chicago way!" - Sean Connery in The Untouchables. It does sound like a story out of the movies; a handful of cops in Nahariya, fed up with the inability of the system to put away a local crime boss who allegedly has threatened them and their families numerous times, take the law into their own hands and strike back at him with two explosive devices. Nothing like this has ever happened here before, and Israel Police chief David Cohen may be right in calling it a "severe but isolated incident." But the circumstances behind this incident are certainly not isolated, and the problem is more severe than just a few officers crossing the line. We are certainly not talking about any ordinary case of police corruption, if that is even the right word for it. It can even be argued that this news is in some ways less shocking than the several serious instances of police bribery by the underworld in recent years, including at least one where an officer was accused of assisting a gangland execution. In the Nahariya case, no one has charged that the officers in question were motivated by anything other than outrage at the fact that a local mobster was supposedly getting away with making threats and ordering violent attacks on cops and public officials (including the city's mayor), and by their view that the criminal justice system was failing to stop him. That may well be the most single most disturbing aspect of this sensational story. The decision of these particular cops to turn vigilante may have been exceptional, and the condemnation of their actions by the law enforcement establishment may have been unequivocal. However, the widespread sympathy and understanding for their motives expressed in the media yesterday by both their peers and the general public is symptomatic of a much bigger problem for Israeli society as whole. Israel is certainly not the only country to suffer from the plague of organized crime; it would be difficult to find one that doesn't. And facing the possibility of life-threatening danger every day is a fact of life for the men and women in blue. But not in every society do mobsters feel confident enough to threaten law enforcement officers - and local officials as well - with impunity, as they have seemingly done so here in recent years in several well-publicized incidents. In the US, for example, an unwritten law of Cosa Nostra was that police and other members of law enforcement were off-limits to retaliation (unless they had already crossed the line by taking bribes and could thus be considered as fellow criminals). In the age of Al Capone and his ilk, this may indeed have been because of the "Chicago way" - cop-killers knew that they were unlikely to survive an arrest unless they publicly turned themselves in, and even then maybe not. These days though, American racketeers (at least the smart ones) know that acting directly against officers of the law will result in the full resources of the criminal justice being brought against them. In those societies where this is not the case, and where as a result cops, prosecutors and judges find themselves targeted by organized crime - Sicily being the most notable case in the Western world - the resulting violence and disorder can reach a point where it actually becomes a threat to national stability. Governments might also react by countering organized crime with non-democratic measures that can be turned against the legitimate rights of law-abiding citizens as well - a phenomenon now apparent in Putin's Russia. The Nahariya case raises the questions of whether Israel is now in danger of finding itself on this slippery slope. If "good policemen without previous disciplinary problems," as Cohen describes them, felt they had no choice but to betray their oath to uphold the law to protect themselves and their families, then clearly something dramatic must be done to counter the scourge of organized crime here. Because of the general security and terrorism threat this society must contend with on a daily basis, the political establishment and the public share blame in not giving this problem its due, and police the means and resources to effectively combat it within the law. But the solution is not simply to increase the number of police and the size of their budgets. New laws may have to be passed, such as the landmark RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act in the US, which finally enabled American law enforcement to put the top level of Cosa Nostra behind bars on criminal conspiracy charges. Putting the entire burden on police to fight organized crime might also have to stop. Israel might consider the appointment of special prosecutors to fight organized crime, especially as this country lacks the system of investigating judges used in many European countries, or a national agency such as the FBI, which in contrast to the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) goes after both terrorists and mobsters. Taking these steps will take some real political will and commitment. There should be little question over the prime candidate for this task: Public Security Minister Avi Dichter. When Dichter was appointed last year to the cabinet post that oversees the police, he promised to make the battle against organized crime a priority. Being one of the few holders of this position in recent years with an appropriate security background created widespread expectations that he would be able, or even willing, to make good on that promise. But Dichter's performance has been disappointing so far, marred by the stumbling manner in which he appointed Cohen as police chief last year, the performance of the police in the recent Peki'in riot, and the lack of any visible sign that the brazen behavior of Israel's organized crime families is being effectively dealt with. Perhaps Dichter is being distracted by hopes of possibly contending for the leadership of Kadima; though that certainly won't be a realistic prospect if he doesn't do better in his current job. The most serious police corruption of all may be when cops feel they must act like criminals in order to stop criminals. And if such behavior spreads out from Nahariya and becomes the "Israeli way," the consequences might be even more severe than the problem of organized crime itself. [email protected]