On the evening of May 20, two weeks after receiving responsibility for Tel Aviv, Maj. Gen. Shahar Ayalon was sitting at the home of friends in the city. He was receiving routine reports on his telephone and beeper about crimes and minor offenses. One of them was about an assault on a woman in a northern neighborhood - at first it was reported she had been "pushed and hurt." Her name, Shira Margalit, sounded familiar to his hosts. His curiosity was aroused, and after a few quick checks, he went to the scene to supervise the police's efforts.
The event, on the face of it a daily occurrence, was immediately seen as part of a systematic pattern of attacks; it was treated with the same attention to detail as a murder investigation. The mobile laboratory was called to the spot, evidence was gathered, items that had been filed away were reexamined (including strange text messages from entertainer Dudu Topaz), and the police launched a sophisticated trap to make the suspects talk to each other and incriminate themselves.
That is how the "Fish in the Net Affair" - "Dag B'Reshet," an acronym of Topaz's birth name David Goldenberg and the name of Margalit's employer, Reshet - began to be solved. What would have been lost in a sleepy routine examination, joining a frustrating list of mysterious attacks, produced arrests and indictments in a few days. An impressive achievement for the local investigative team and commander who motivated the investigators by threatening that he would maintain his presence.
In commanding a large area like Tel Aviv, the challenge is to understand the connection between tactics and strategy. In a tactical event, one of hundreds every year, it's important when the police officer knows that his commander is taking an interest. And the commander takes an interest not merely because well-known public figures are involved, but because the public is judging the police on the basis of their success with cases under constant media attention.
Suddenly things can be done differently, without foot-dragging (even when a court holds consecutive sittings like in the sex-crimes case of former president Moshe Katsav). And there is another conclusion: Instead of overstaffed headquarters and additional forces from the outside, the public will get the kind of police force it deserves if there are more beat patrols, detectives and investigators, and if they are better, more sophisticated and more expensive.
Ayalon provides hope for change, but he is not the only such officer in the police's top echelons. His ideas for change regarding structure, which include canceling the merhavim (regions) and concentrating on the stations, echo the big change Southern Command underwent when Uri Bar-Lev was commander. (Which, according to Bar-Lev's supporters, is being continued successfully by Maj. Gen. Yohanan Danino).
However, manpower is spread thin in different parts of the force, like distant islands in a sea of mediocrity. The organization is not capable of rising above petty considerations and deriving from them teamwork, pride and a feeling of purposefulness and excellence. These are important when facing the general public as well as suspected criminals.
We now have a chance to create change, on the condition that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch reach organizational and budget agreements. Police Commissioner David Cohen has relaxed somewhat regarding recent squabbles and is trying to design a police force for the next decade. With a view to the future, Cohen is trying to skip over veterans (who are thus bitter) and build the next generation of district commanders, including the last two commanders of the special antiterror unit, Brig. Gen. Zohar Dvir and Maj. Gen. Yoram Halevy.
In dispute are the scope, authority and other issues concerning "urban policing," which will reinforce law enforcement while paying attention to local needs. This is similar to what Bar-Lev introduced in the south. For this purpose, a special administrative body is expected to be set up in the Prime Minister's Office or in the Public Security Ministry, headed by former police chief Assaf Hefetz.
The adopted format will also influence the chances of the men competing to be the next police commissioner in May 2011. These include Ayalon, Bar-Lev and prison-service chief Benny Kaniak. The struggle to make the police force more effective, helping victims and fighting criminals, is far from lost. Its success depends mainly on finding the right people.
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