A cop on the beat?

The notion of partially decentralizing law enforcement now has the strong backing of Netanyahu.

police and gun 224 (photo credit: Yaakov Katz [file])
police and gun 224
(photo credit: Yaakov Katz [file])
The new government is weighing a proposal to decentralize police services by giving local governments jurisdiction over neighborhood policing. Unlike New York City or London, for instance, the mayors of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem currently have little say in how the police are deployed in their cities. Everyone agrees that Israel's police force carries a heavy burden while operating under tight budgetary constraints. Inadequate pay and difficult working conditions make recruitment hard, leaving the force chronically understaffed. It has a low officer-to-civilian ratio compared to many other Western countries. And foreign police hardly face comparable challenges - such as an overriding preoccupation with the threat of terrorism which diverts our cops' attention from fighting "classic crime." The notion of partially decentralizing law enforcement has been floated before. But now it has the strong backing of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch. Several of Israel's more affluent municipalities, including Ra'anana, already deploy a small force of city police with rather limited jurisdiction working in parallel with the Israel police. But in most places even this option is not available. If the reform proposal goes through and community policing is instituted, there will presumably be a renewed emphasis on basic police work - such as routine street patrols in the cop-on-the-beat tradition. These duties would come under city auspices, enabling the national police to better concentrate on intelligence and combating major and organized crime. As things now stand, police officers are seldom dispatched to most burglary scenes to take fingerprints. Car thefts are likewise too often neglected. There never seem to be enough police to carry out the "unglamorous" work that is the responsibility of police forces in other Western societies. If the police were decentralized and assigned locally, in addition to the renewed emphasis on basic law enforcement, attention could be paid to quality-of-life offenses which create an atmosphere of lawlessness. City cops could be trained to deal with feuding neighbors, domestic violence, schoolyard bullies and street hooliganism. Decentralization is advantageous where knowledge of a given community's unique characteristics and awareness of its particular needs can make a positive difference. A decentralized force would most likely benefit from supplemental financing by the municipalities and civic associations. BUT LIKE any major organization, the police are resistant to change. Israel's top cop, Insp.-General David Cohen, opposes decentralization on the grounds that it would weaken the force. He argues strenuously that local policing will only make things worse, and warns against granting mayors authority over law enforcement since too many municipalities are riddled with corruption. Decentralization isn't without its drawbacks and is another example of dumping more governmental chores on municipalities - as is the case with education. It could drive already insolvent towns deeper into debt, abandoning their residents to inferior protection. However, the argument that local government is tainted with corruption should not be the deciding factor. Limited decentralization wouldn't do away with the central police or the existing apparatus for combating corruption. Dishonest officials anyway need to be tried and, if guilty, fired. It does no one any good for top police brass to insinuate that local municipalities are all riddled with corruption. Just as not all cops are on the take, all mayors are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The community policing idea must succeed or fail on its own merits. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with several levels of police jurisdiction covering the same area. In the US, for example, there typically are state police frameworks; but counties and municipalities have their own forces. Federal agencies have jurisdiction over serious crimes or those with an interstate component. Obviously, while revolutionary changes in the police force can theoretically be imposed upon it by the political echelon, it would be far more effective if reform could be brought about with the force's collaboration. Finally, if police brass could come up with a more viable proposal that offered the benefits of decentralized policing along with substantive influence for local officials while essentially maintaining the current hierarchy, we would keep an open mind. One thing's for sure: Israelis deserve to be better protected in their homes and communities - and not just from terrorists.