The Israel Police needs healing

Data published by the police and the Public Security Ministry on an annual basis shows that there’s been a decline in crime rates in recent years, but these figures are misleading.

Israel Police logo (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel Police logo
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Thousands of words have been written in recent days about whether Gal Hirsch is or is not fit to serve as Israel’s new police chief. The country has split into two camps: one is leading a crusade against Hirsch’s appointment and the other is running a campaign in support of him. The brigadier-general (res.) has found himself thrown into the center of the ring with no suitable background or preparation.
But we are missing the point. What the public fails to understand is that the new police commissioner’s identity is not what is going to define the future of the Israel Police. If we take a minute to learn the details of the situation, we will see that this appointment will have little impact on the organization, and neither will it help solve any of the problems that are currently affecting the country’s main law enforcement body.
Data published by the police and the Public Security Ministry on an annual basis shows that there’s been a decline in crime rates in recent years, but these figures are misleading.
There’s only been an extremely slight decrease in property offenses, fraud and economic damage due to crime. Crime is still costing the economy about NIS 15 billion every year.
In fact, if we compare data collected by the Public Security Ministry over the last few years, we will see that there has not been a marked reduction in even one of the major types of crime. Not only has the Israel Police not succeeded in reducing crime rates recently, but according to the OECD, Israel is ranked at the bottom of the list of countries with respect to crime and corruption. In the 2012 Peace Index survey conducted by the Evens Program in Mediation and Conflict Resolution at Tel Aviv University, more than 75 percent of respondents gave the Israel Police a low mark. These figures have remained consistent year after year and do not distinguish between car and house break-ins and bloody battles between leaders of the underworld that involve dozens of hardened criminals and often take the lives of innocent bystanders.
This crime costs Israeli taxpayers millions of shekels every year. Widespread criminal activity has infiltrated every area across the country, including rabbis’ courts and local councils.
Organized crime leaders collect “protection” fees from store owners and are involved in gray market loans and drug trades, prostitution and illegal construction involving contractors who owe them money or hire workers of their choice. Over the last 24 months, the police has arrested and imprisoned a number of organized crime leaders, but this has not had a significant effect on the crime scene throughout the country.
Although the Israel Police needs to take responsibility for its failure to deal with organized crime, the true culprit is the government, which has been neglecting the country’s domestic security for years. While the IDF receives huge amounts of funding, the police must make do with a tiny budget that barely covers salaries. Rarely is there any money left over for the police to spend on the development of new projects or for augmenting forces.
For years now the police has been suffering from lack of proper training facilities and the funds necessary to purchase police cars (old ones spend more time in the garage than on the road).
The police budget has increased, though, and over the last three decades it has even doubled its manpower. In the last decade alone the police budget has increased by more than NIS 1 billion and now stands at NIS 6b. However, a large chunk of these funds is being channeled into pensions; only 20% is allocated for the purchase of equipment and supplies, which is not very much.
Although the number of policemen patrolling the country has grown over the past six years, there are still not enough police personnel to address the population’s needs.
There are not enough police officers or patrol cars on the streets to effectively create deterrence.
The Israel Police currently has 30,000 men and women on its payroll and another 30,000 uniformed volunteers. But only 17% of police personnel are assigned to investigative teams and another 15% for intelligence gathering.
The conditions under which Israeli police officers work are terrible and the legal system does not afford them adequate protection.
Officers who harmed criminals while on active duty have been given prison sentences for carrying out their job when instead they should be commended for a job well done.
The result is that police officers think twice before confronting a criminal or giving chase when a crime is committed since they know the court system is not sympathetic to their situation.
In addition, there is an inherent problem in the way the Israel Police deals with organized crime. Only recently has it begun treating organized crime incidents as criminal terrorist attacks. What this means is that the police must now treat these waves of “terror” just like the Shin Bet treats nationalistic terrorist threats. The police needs to build up its human intelligence and signals intelligence systems and to make sure that the courts are in sync with these changes.
Currently, law enforcement officials are extremely limited when gathering evidence that can hold up in a court of law. In addition, police officers fear going up against organized crime families, especially when they are sent in as undercover agents. Until restrictions placed upon these agents are eased, the police will not succeed in gathering usable evidence.
To this end, an external system needs to be put in place that will be in charge of preventing “criminal terrorism” on a national level.
This system needs to be backed by the appropriate legal infrastructure with access to the relevant professional information base and technological accessories so that it can gather intelligence about confidential targets.
To progress, we must first admit that part of the problem stems from the police’s problematic priorities, mismanagement and planning.
One of the reasons so many senior officers have been relieved of duty before completing their terms is the terrible organizational culture in the Israel Police.
The combination of poor working conditions, low salaries, numerous and long shifts and relatively low requirements for acceptance (this last issue has been remedied in recent years) have led to ongoing frustration at all levels.
The Israel Police relies to a great extent on the volunteer segments of the organization, and not surprisingly, these people many times are not professional enough and are not properly equipped or legally protected to carry out law enforcement properly. There simply is not enough money to properly train volunteers.
The government can be blamed for most of these problems. Often times security considerations are used as an excuse for channeling large amounts of funding to the military that was originally earmarked for the police.
The legal system doesn’t protect police officers who run into problems while acting in the line of duty, and antiquated legislation is flawed. All of these make it extremely difficult for the Israel Police to fulfill its responsibilities, and enable organized crime to flourish and prosper.
Even the most talented police commissioner, though, can’t fix all these problems on his own. This is especially true if he is an outsider who is unfamiliar with the system and will have a difficult time communicating with his staff. Comprehensive and long-term change needs to be carried out in a systemic, strategic manner.
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). Translated by Hannah Hochner.