Israel's national police force: Far from 'Israel's finest'

For everyone’s sake, the Israeli police must renew their connection with the public.

police 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
police 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The State of Israel recently paid more than three million shekels in compensation to the family of murder victim Inbal Amram who was found dead after having been kidnapped in 2006. The court found the police guilty of negligence after they refused to allow the victim’s family to lodge a complaint or to have a car dispatched to search for Inbal, despite her parents’ anguished pleas. While this story ended in the most tragic of outcomes, the underlying symptoms of police negligence are a daily occurrence.          Why is Israel’s police force so troubled? The answer dates back to 1974 and the infamous Ma’alot Massacre in which Palestinian terrorists murdered dozens of school children. Following this tragedy, the government shifted responsibility for internal security from the IDF to the police. This required the reallocation of considerable resources to tackle terrorism, Israel’s main internal security threat. This decision also meant that classic policing methods and strategies were left undeveloped, while others were totally abandoned. Since this shift in police responsibility, the Israel Police have earned the reputation of being strong in the ‘tough’ areas, such as organized crime and terrorist attacks, but weak in classic, everyday policing duties. 
A poll taken by the Ministry of Interior Security in 2010 signaled that Israeli’s hold poor perceptions of their police force in regard to even their most basic activities. Only one third of citizens think that police officers behave ‘professionally.’ The numbers were not much higher when asked if police were ‘trustworthy’ or if police “took a citizen’s inquiry seriously.” Worst of all, less than a third of Israelis think police are ‘kind’ or ‘caring’ in their day-to-day interactions with civilians. Where Israelis need their police officers most, their service is extremely deficient.
Surprisingly, the Israeli police are well aware of their image problem. This awareness influences officers’ decision making in the field from the first day of their service. They are not trained to effectively interact with Israel’s diverse population and multitude of cultures. Interactions with citizens often result in clashes instead of solutions. Instead of getting to the root of the problem, the police waste resources, time and money trying to achieve ‘quick fixes’ to these problems. In turn, civilians become frustrated, annoyed and, subsequently, lose trust in those who they should trust most.
Strained by budget cuts and a lack of manpower, what can be done to improve the perception of our police?
Of utmost importance is Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s decision to act. Once guidelines are determined, they must include steps to revive the citizen-oriented approach that was lost in the 1970s. Esteemed police forces elsewhere in the world, such as the New York Police Department, encourage citizens to interact with their local police officers, even getting to know them by name, and meet their local station commanders should they wish to raise their concerns. Police forces send officers and volunteers to schools and kindergartens to encourage positive interactions and trust between children and police officers. Likewise, citizens can and should be involved in the task of securing their own neighborhoods.
In fact, the Israel Police are one of the last forces in the Western world that has yet to revolutionize itself under the banner of citizen-focused policing. During the early 2000s, the Israeli police tried in vain to duplicate community policing efforts that were so helpful in revitalizing the tainted image of the LAPD after the 1991 scandal surrounding police-brutality victim Rodney King. What the Israeli police fail to understand is that, in order to improve their image, they must first prove to the Israeli public that they are actually concerned with public opinion, adding positive public perception to their existing performance indicators, in addition to the number of arrests or roadblocks made by officers.
Once this internal culture change occurs, the Israeli police will find that low wages are not what are preventing quality recruits from joining the force, just as qualified individuals, such as teachers and diplomats, seek low-paying government posts. Improving the Israeli police’s image in the eyes of the public will not only generate better recruits, but will encourage the public to cooperate with investigations and report crimes - thus enhancing the police's ability to achieve its goals. 
Unfortunately, the case of Inbal Amram may not have been sufficient enough to signal to the Israeli police or the Israeli public that the current situation is indeed dire and in need of an in-depth inspection. As more and more communities turn to private security for protection, perhaps one day our boys in blue will begin to be attentive to the needs of the people, aspiring to truly fulfill their role as Israel's finest.
The writers are the co-authors of Israel's Finest and are both Argov Fellows for Leadership and Diplomacy at the IDC Herzlyia and co-managers of the dialogue project.