Police and Thieves: A glossy press release

Mistakes may have been made, but they didn’t affect anything, move along, nothing to see here, case closed.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officialy appoint Roni Alsheich as Israel's new police chief (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officialy appoint Roni Alsheich as Israel's new police chief
(photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
As Macbeth might say if he were an Israeli crime reporter, the report was all glossy pics and user-friendly format, signifying nothing.
Over two months after the New Year’s Day terror attack that left three dead in Tel Aviv, the national spokesperson’s branch of the Israel Police last week put out its report on police handling of the shooting spree by Nashat Milhem. For the press and the public, police handling of the manhunt left a lot to be desired, but apparently that’s not the case for the police.
To sum up: “There were probably a couple of things we could have done better, but even if mistakes were made, they didn’t affect the investigation, and we did great job, case closed, check out this great PowerPoint!” To be fair, a well-oiled PR firm would be hard-pressed to make a nicer press release, which came in the form of a link to a user-friendly, glossy series of slides and photos. Is that the point though? I guess it’s unreasonable to expect a security agency to carry out a rigorous, unbiased probe of itself, but one would hope for at least the semblance of a reckoning.
To be sure, the New Year’s Eve attack was a difficult and complicated event.
There was no prior warning or intelligence, and within a week police did have their man, without a second attack having taken place. Still, there was much to be desired, especially in terms of dealing with the press.
The first police statement on the attack was hours after it happened, when the head of the sub district said a few words to reporters outside city hall. Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich only actually addressed the public five days later, after police had determined that Milhem was hiding in his home village in the Wadi Ara region. By then many residents of Tel Aviv had been living in fear thinking the killer was still on the loose in the city. According to the police report, they could have done a better job addressing the public sooner, but really it was only a matter of hours.
There was also the fact that they mishandled a 100 emergency dispatch call that same evening from two sisters who reported seeing him just after the attack heading north on a bus to the Wadi Ara.
According to the report, by then, police already had an indication that he was in Arara, so it didn’t matter anyway their failure to heed the call properly. This is despite the fact that it was actually only by Tuesday that they had proof he was in Arara.
Finally, there was their failure to put out an updated photo of Milhem on the day of the attack, even as he was at that moment the most wanted man in the country, and, one would think, a person that police would want the public to be able to identify. According to the report, they were still unsure if the shooter was Nashat or his brother, and besides, by the time they put out a picture it was really no more current or accurate than the one that had already been leaked to the press a day earlier.
Bottom line, mistakes may have been made, but they didn’t affect anything, move along, nothing to see here, case closed.
The glossy press release and its lack of findings were panned at a recent meeting between crime reporters and the police spokesperson’s branch, and seem to represent a wider problem.
The press release, far from showing only a failure to investigate themselves with proper scrutiny, also showed a lack of respect or consideration for the press. There was no expectation that results of the police probe would be released that day, and word only got out about an hour or two beforehand when police sent out a message on WhatsApp to keep an eye out for the embargoed report.
At that moment, most of the crime reporters in central Israel were busy covering a deadly car bombing in north Tel Aviv, and had to race back to prepare to cover the report. In hindsight, considering the time constraints, maybe they were lucky it was relatively lacking in content.
The feeling communicated by the press release is that the Israel Police – or more specifically the new commissioner – simply have no need for the media and no interest in how their message and image is conveyed to the public through the press. They will set their agenda, they will go about their daily business, and the fifth estate will not be there to report it.
Since Alsheich was sworn in December, it’s hard to remember a single event he spoke at that was covered by the press. Reporters are no longer notified ahead of time like they were with his predecessors, out of fear either that they will ask him questions at the appearances, or that they’ll report statements like the one he made in a speech to police on International Women’s Day, in which he said the police will no longer handle anonymous criminal complaints issued against police officers, saying that such complaints were being used to “settle accounts” by other cops.
Over the past few years, the public image of the police has been battered repeatedly by one sex scandal and corruption case after another. When former commissioner Yochanan Danino’s term was coming to an end, the assumption many made was that one of the priorities for the country’s next top cop will be improving the public image of the police and their relationship with the press – two things that in theory should go hand in hand. The other assumption was that they would appoint a commissioner from outside the organization, one with a long history in the security services who would bring accolades, authority and prestige.
As the former deputy head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) Roni Alsheich spent decades as a highly skilled and successful commander at the top of one of the most important and elite security agencies in the country.
Now that he’s been commissioner for almost four months the learning curve should be over. He leads one of the most important and largest public agencies in Israel, and it’s time for him to step out of the shadows.
The writer covers crime, African migrants and security issues for The Jerusalem Post. His blog can be found at www.benjaminhartman.com