Are the police working for the people? Not currently - opinion

While policing is not an easy job, the number of mistaken identities by the Israel Police seems to be beyond what might be expected.

Anti-Netanyahu protester in Tel Aviv confronts Israel Police (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Anti-Netanyahu protester in Tel Aviv confronts Israel Police
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
This past week has seen two tragic incidents in which police were involved that highlight the need for serious police reform. Not “defund the police,” as some irresponsible groups in the US argue. The police are a necessary governmental body. But, based on recent events, it is clear that there are very serious systemic failings within the police training and priorities.
In the first incident, as reported in the media, a 66-year-old mentally challenged Jerusalem resident, Yosef Fleischman, was awakened in the middle of the night and led barefoot in the cold Jerusalem night to the police station. At some point the cops realized they had the wrong person and simply released him. He was barefoot, alone and disoriented. He then wandered for over 12 hours, eventually being found semiconscious in the Jerusalem forest suffering from severe hypothermia. A few more hours and he would have been dead.
There is a video of his arrest in which he can be heard protesting the fact that they awoke him in the middle of the night and pleading to be permitted to put on shoes.
Every aspect of this tragic story reveals policies that are corrupt, immoral and in need of severe reform.
The police policy of total inconsideration for a person’s sleep and peace is known. No one questions that there are times when the element of surprise is required, when a 3 a.m. police operation is warranted. But for the arrest of what seems to have been a minor offender there is no justification, and this is not a onetime event; the police are known for “checking” on individuals repeatedly in the middle of the night and arresting nonviolent, low-level criminals at odd hours. This behavior strikes one as punitive, an aspect of criminal justice not in the purview of the police.
Ignoring a detainee’s basic needs when it does not hamper the investigation is against the law, yet unfortunately appears to be not a rare occurrence. That this man’s pleas for shoes in a Jerusalem winter went unheeded is cruel. Listening to the video of him pleading breaks one’s heart and makes one wonder at the coldhearted nature of those officers and the degree of misguided training they must have received that enables them to ignore such cries.
Finally, the policy to simply release a person into the night with no means to get home is a known but sick policy that in this case almost resulted in a death. If they could bring him to the station, they can certainly return him to his house.
While policing is not an easy job, the number of mistaken identities by the Israel Police seems to be beyond what might be expected.
THE SECOND incident led to the death of Ahuvya Sandak. According to reports, the incident began with the police giving chase at high speed to a vehicle with five young occupants whom they suspected of having thrown stones. At some point the car in which the boys were traveling flipped over, injuring 4 and killing Ahuvya.
The survivors have claimed that the police rammed the back of their car, causing it to flip. For days the police denied that there was any contact between the vehicles, but faced with evidence to the contrary now claim that the contact was due to the erratic driving of the boys.
Seeing that every beginning driver knows that in contact behind two vehicles, the one in the rear is considered liable, it is not clear what the police defense is.
The behavior of the police both during and after the tragic incident leaves much to be desired. Policy on what circumstances justify a high-speed pursuit is subject to debate, but clearly it must be such that the crime is serious, there is clear and present danger to life should the high-speed chase not be pursued, the suspected perpetrators are unknown and will escape justice, and the risks are minimized (such chases not infrequently end tragically). None of that seems to have applied in this case.
The policy of police to “bump” – i.e., intentionally ram – vehicles was confirmed by a fortuitously issued NIS 800,000 ruling this past week against the police for just such an incident three years ago in which a person was injured and required surgery (and several other cases are pending in the courts). And for the record, that case was one of mistaken identity.
Following the crash, the police were so intent on arresting the boys that Sandak was left pinned and undetected for over an hour! Every first responder is trained that the first thing one does at a crash scene is survey the area. These officers seem to have forgotten that. Might Sandak have been alive? We will never know.
The paramedics, as trained, attempted to stabilize the injured with a standard backboard. Every officer should know about the importance of this, yet for a long time they refused to permit this. The police then sealed the scene, including preventing an MK from entering, in order, so it seems, to “fix” the evidence. And then they lied about the circumstances.
A young man is dead. Both his parents are widely acclaimed social workers. No one from the police has had the courtesy to even acknowledge or express regret that their son died in a police-involved incident. Not as a matter of taking responsibility – obviously, the incident is under investigation – but a humane statement expressing sorrow for the tragedy. Such would be expected from a normal police force.
THE POLICE are supposed to exist in order to safeguard the citizens and maintain the rule of law. They are not supposed to be a tool of the government for political motives nor an independent body functioning solely for their own self-preservation.
They currently seem to have a culture of disdain for both the law and the citizen. The number of court decisions in recent years against the police for violating basic laws and norms – for which we, the taxpayers, not the police involved, pay – is ludicrous.
Whether it is barring a parent from the interrogation of a minor, or preventing a detainee from using the bathroom, or uncalled-for brutality – it all points to a need for a very serious look at the police culture. This utter disregard for the law and for the well-being of the citizen must change.
While many of us Western immigrants to Israel had been raised on the notion of police being your neighborhood friend, we are unfortunately unable to transmit that to our children here in Israel in the current situation.
These incidents point to a lack of basic humanity in police training. The current environment has now led to a death. Sandak is dead and Fleischman was near death. There is nothing that can be done for the past. But there must be an independent commission of inquiry, and it must lead to a radical overhaul of the police ethos and training.